November is National Adoption month, which makes the Program Review and Investigations Committee report on Kentucky’s foster care and adoption system very timely. In May 2016, the Program Review and Investigations Committee voted to initiate a study of Kentucky’s foster care system. The Committee’s Legislative Research Commission (LRC) staff looked at relevant statutes and regulations, evaluated agency procedures and practices, and made recommendations for improvement.

What the Committee found was informative and important as the state legislature considers making significant changes to the system to ensure children and families fare better once the Cabinet for Health and Family Services gets involved. The Cabinet has recently made changes internally to better address workload and supports provided to kinship caregivers.

The necessary commitment and support to make changes within Kentucky’s foster care system is evident from the Governor’s office, legislature, judicial system, Cabinet leaders, and other agencies involved in the system in some way. There is a growing interest in identifying needed changes by several groups for the best interest of the children and families involved and the state budget.

The Committee’s analysis of the data highlighted where the state needs to focus heavily on improvements. The report found that, “more than 11,000 children were in the Kentucky out-of-home care system at some time during 2016, a 15.4 percent increase since 2012. The number of children in out-of-home care who are available for adoption has increased by more than 17 percent since 2012.”

The report also found that, “over the past 5 years, only approximately 44 percent of the children in out-of-home care who are available for adoption have been adopted annually.” This means that 56% of children awaiting adoption, continued to wait.

We know that children who spend time in out-of-home care have poorer health and mental health, educational, and social outcomes. This means that getting children to permanency quicker typically means they fare better than those who linger in care, whether that is though reunification with their parents, permanent placement with a family member, or adoption by a family member or non-family member. Children who age-out of the system without a connection to family are likely to experience instability in young adulthood that can lead to unemployment, homelessness, and interaction with the criminal justice system.

The Committee found that there were processes in which data should or could be captured by the courts or Department of Community Based Services (DCBS) to better inform why a child’s placement changes or the number of caseloads workers carry. It is critical that the courts and DCBS have the supports they need to address the increasing number of children coming into the foster care system.

The report’s recommendations focused on ways to better support the workforce, whether that is through increased salaries for caseworkers or the ability to better capture and analyze data to inform improving practices both in the courts and DCBS. The recommendations also included changes to reduce the administrative burden on workers so they can spend more time working with children and families.

Overall, the recommendations looked at the current functioning of the system and ways to improve it through further analysis of internal processes, more rigorous data collection, statute change, or increased funding for DCBS to increase salaries to be more competitive in the workforce.

If you’d like a copy of the report, contact the Legislative Research Commission.