Opinion – Norma Hatfield: How is nothing better than something for children in need?

I am shocked and saddened as I reflect upon recent events regarding Senate Bill 151 for kinship caregivers. There are many questions, beginning with, how is nothing better than something for children, when we know we can do better?

The story requires some background; I begin with the term “kinship care.” It’s when a chiis living with relatives or close friends other than parents. The kids may be victims of abuse and neglect and/or formally in the child welfare system with involvement of the Department of Community Based Services (DCBS) or informally placed with relatives/friends.

In 2019, kinship advocates were elated as Kentucky offered formal kinship caregivers a relative foster care option. It provided a second primary option of custody at initial placement in the child welfare system while the family courts pursued reunification with the parents or permanency elsewhere.

Norma Hatfield (Photo by Becca Owsley/The News-Enterprise)

The first option is temporary custody which provides fewer financial resources and less oversight; the second option of relative foster care offers more resources with more oversight. The decision is annotated on a DCBS form at placement.

For five years, caregivers shared frustration and concerns over how these options have been offered. Legislators wondered why caregivers weren’t selecting relative foster care. In fact, more than half of Kentucky children in the system were in temporary custody rather than relative foster care which indicated a problem.

When people aren’t thinking clearly, they shouldn’t be making rushed critical decisions that can wait. Kinship caregivers are often approached by the system in a time of crisis. Typically, that’s when a child is removed from an unsafe home or even in the hospital due to abuse/neglect. Under duress, decisions with long term implications are made without knowing what the future will look like or what’s needed. Yet, regardless of the circumstances, once the placement form is signed, it’s permanent.

During the 2024 legislative session, Sen. Julie Raque Adams sponsored SB 151. The bill allowed caregiver flexibility up to 120 days for that critical decision and in some cases, the potential ability to change options after the 120 days. This bill also requires a social worker to ask a child whom they’d like to be placed with at removal; it gives that child a voice. 
On Feb. 6 at a Senate Families and Children Committee meeting, Sen. Raque Adams referenced a fiscal note stating no additional costs to implement the bill.

The bill was unanimously approved in both Kentucky House and Senate committee meetings and on the House and Senate floors and later signed by Gov. Andy Beshear on April 5.

I assumed SB 151 would soon become reality. It’s a bad assumption. On June 19 at the Interim Joint Committee on Families and Children, Sen. Raque Adams asked DCBS for the status of SB 151 implementation. The discussion led to the discovery of no implementation due to the need for $20 million; basically, it’s no money, no action.
We’re now hearing of letters and events that have happened over the last few months, including a letter from the governor dated five days after he signed the bill that says “the omission of an appropriation is the same as elimination.”

Thankfully, all of this will be discussed at a July 30 committee meeting and get to an acceptable resolution for the families in need.

I’m a grandma, kinship advocate and citizen. I believe in good faith efforts. To me, good faith is more than one email or letter; it’s phone calls, meetings, talking and more talking. Good faith should be authentic outreach in all possible ways.
If the governor, legislature and DCBS all believe the bill should be done, how can this be an all or nothing action/decision? Where are all the potential options, knowing there are issues in the current policies/system? 

This bill helps children in the child welfare system and fixes known problems. Does it really cost $20 million to ask a child whom they’d like to be placed with before we determine placement? Have we earnestly looked at the 120-day policy change and found all implementation options would cost $20 million? Many kinship kids in the system are innocent victims of the opioid epidemic; why wouldn’t we consider opioid settlement dollars as a solution to needed funding?  Are we doing all we can today or taking the easy path to nothing?

Norma Hatfield is a grandmother who has been raising two grandchildren for the past eight years in Elizabethtown. She is president of the Kinship Families Coalition of Kentucky and a member of the Grand Voice Network with Generations United. This commentary first appeared in The Kentucky Lantern.

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