Caring for children in Ky.

Published 10:58 am Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Lawmakers in 2017 examined the crisis — that word is no exaggeration — that the opioid epidemic is inflicting on Kentucky’s children.

The only problem with ideas recently offered by two legislative committees is that they cost money that Kentucky does not have.

The federal government would send aid to clean up and rebuild from a natural disaster. But despite President Donald Trump’s declaration of a public health emergency, too little help has arrived in response to this man-made disaster, one that was abetted by the reluctance of U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration lawyers to punish pharmaceutical companies for supplying volumes of addictive painkillers so huge that they were clearly bound for illegal diversion.

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Kentucky is far from alone in this hydra of a crisis that’s brought grief to almost every family and neighborhood. But states are largely on their own to develop solutions.

After adjourning the House Adoption Work Group on Dec. 19, co-chairman Rep. David Meade, R-Stanford, recoiled at the prospect of tax increases to pay for its recommendations. He talked instead of “streamlining” and “realigning,” despite what he said will be “one of the most difficult budgets anyone has seen in state history.”

Faced with a $156 million current shortfall, Gov. Matt Bevin and lawmakers who convene Jan. 2 must decide how to meet overdue pension obligations without slashing education, health care and other state services that Bevin said have already been “cut to the bone.”

So, Kentucky youngsters, entering foster care at a higher rate than their counterparts nationally, will do without early interventions and supports that can keep them with their families, even though, as Meade said, preserving families is better for children and cheaper for taxpayers.

The numbers reveal a downward spiral:

? Since 2011, children living in foster care have increased nearly 8 percent nationally and more than 24 percent in Kentucky. More than 11,000 Kentucky children whom judges removed from their families were in out-of-home care in 2016 — up 15.4 percent since 2012.

? Intake calls received by child-protection caseworkers in Kentucky doubled from 2011 to 2017; the number of children in substantiated reports of abuse or neglect increased by 42 percent.

? As social workers struggle to keep up with the chaos spread by addiction, a perennial risk factor — unbearable caseloads — is probably worse than ever. In a survey last spring, 94 percent of caseworkers and 98 percent of supervisors said their workloads were unmanageable within a normal work week. Half of the caseworkers and 65 percent of supervisors said their workloads would be unmanageable no matter how many hours they worked in a week. Turnover exceeds the national rate, with a typical caseworker in Kentucky staying on the job just four years, according to a draft report issued by the Program Review and Investigations Committee.

Lawmakers on both committees urged the Department for Community Based Services to seek increases in social worker pay and numbers and to adopt strategies to improve recruitment, hiring and retention. Lawmakers called for equipping social workers with better technology, such as tablets and smart phones, to lessen their administrative burdens and give them more time with children and families.

Lawmakers identified high child-care costs as an obstacle to recruiting foster and adoptive parents. The need for affordable, reliable child care is something no one disputes. Children are put at risk when a parent is forced to choose between losing a job or leaving a child in an unsafe setting.

But, then again, money.

Other low- or no-cost recommendations, such as performance-based contracts for private foster care and adoption agencies, are worth pursuing.

But the reality remains: No amount of “streamlining” and “realigning” can make current state revenue meet Kentucky’s needs.

Lexington Herald-Leader