Health

Kentucky is hoping to keep more kids at home with their families whenever possible — even when previously they might have been removed because of abuse or neglect. This year, the state has access to new state and federal funds to help support struggling parents, due to legislation passed in 2018 by both Congress and the Kentucky General Assembly. The Cabinet for Health and Family Services is holding a summit Jan. 16 to plan for the reforms coming in 2019.

Currently in Kentucky and most other states, if child abuse is reported a state worker will investigate. Often the default response is to take the child out of the home and place him or her in foster care. But with the new reforms, Cabinet Deputy Secretary Kristi Putnam said that system is going to change.

“The biggest change is really changing the culture of our front lines, staff, of our families, our court to really look at how do we preserve a family, rather than how do we disrupt and remove the child,” Putnam said. “It’s a really big shift.”

Currently, the federal government pays foster families and other out-of-home caregivers when a child is removed from the home. But there’s limited funding for programs that help parents struggling with addiction, job security and other issues to keep their children at home. The Family First Prevention and Services Act, passed in 2018, gives states the option to put more federal dollars toward helping parents retain custody.

Kentucky already has some programs that help parents; those include HANDS, Kentucky’s Health Access Nurturing Development Services, a statewide program that provides home visits to help new and expecting parents ensure healthy, safe environments for their children. There’s also the Sobriety Treatment and Recovery Teams program, an intensive program for parents who have had their kids taken away because of substance abuse and the resulting neglect or mistreatment of the children.

But funding is limited for these programs. So that’s why in 2019 the federal government plans to stream more money into programs like these, with the state also kicking in additional funds to keep kids at home with healthy parents.

“A lot of the work that has to be done involves providers, shifting their business models to be more focused on prevention and prevention services and wraparound services for in home support,” Putnam said.

Federal funding for more prevention programs can start as soon as Oct. 1, 2019, and Putnam said the state wants to start changing how child welfare in Kentucky is handled soon after.

The one-day summit planned for later this month will cover how the state will implement these federal changes, as well as additional state changes coming via House Bill 1, which was signed by Gov. Matt Bevin in 2018. The legislation allows the state to strengthen support for parents to keep families together, and to streamline the adoption process.

Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, said the changes will target Kentucky’s most vulnerable children and families. He hopes that the government officials at the summit will lay out a clear timeline of how the reforms will be implemented.

“I think this is one of those moments where if we don’t seize it in the immediate, we may just have lost it for a long time,” Brooks said, “You’re talking about the most vulnerable kids in Kentucky, and I for one think we owe immediate implementation to them.”

Deputy Secretary Putnam said she expects many programs that are already working to keep kids at home will get expanded funding to help more families, in addition to new agencies opening to meet need. She also said this summit will be the first of several longer ones held later this year.

The summit is planned for January 16 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the University of Louisville Cardinal Stadium.

Lisa Gillespie is WFPL's Health and Innovation Reporter.