If you’ve ever thought about becoming a foster or adoptive parent but couldn’t get past the uncertainties of caring for a non-biological child, perhaps one from troubled circumstances, then consider this advice from an adoptive father:
“Children that are born to you come with no manual, they come with no guarantee, they come with no certainty as to their physical or emotional needs as they develop,” says Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, who has five biological and four adopted children.
“The irony is that a child who comes through the foster care system is much more of a known entity,” he says. “There’s less worry associated with adopting a child or fostering a child than there would be about giving birth to a child and starting from scratch.”
Bevin has made it a top priority of his administration to overhaul Kentucky’s adoption and foster care system so that more children in state care find stable, loving homes and families. The governor along with First Lady Glenna Bevin, state officials, and lawmakers discussed the issue in the KET documentary, Children in Wait: Foster Care and Adoption in Kentucky.
That’s the number of children in state care as of April.
“They are not in foster care because these children did anything,” says Vickie Yates Brown Glisson, the Secretary of the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services (CHFS). “They are usually victims of circumstances that are well beyond their control.”
Children are removed from their homes because of abuse, neglect, or some other family crisis. Glisson says substance abuse by a parent is the biggest factor that leads to a state intervention. Other times a parent may have physical or mental health issues that prevent them from providing proper care for their child.
And sometimes, one or both parents may be jail. Some 13 percent of Kentucky children have an incarcerated parent. That’s the highest rate by far of any state in the nation.
“These children who are in the state system are losing their opportunity to truly receive the nurturing and loving oversight that they need to become productive adults,” Glisson says.
Many youth in state care will eventually be placed with other blood relatives or foster families. But hundreds of children may remain in an unimaginable limbo, unable to be reunited with their biological families yet not wanted for adoption.
Department for Community Based Services (DCBS) Commissioner Adria Johnson says the youth who are at greatest risk of lingering in the system include those with special physical or medical needs, sibling groups, minority children over the age of two, and older teenage boys. Once a child enters state care, they’re likely to stay there for months or even years: On average that child will spend almost a third of his or her life in foster care, according to Johnson.
“That is just unacceptable,” the commissioner says. “That is re-traumatizing to a child.”
Johnson says kids who age out of the foster care system without ever finding a so-called “forever home” are at greater risk for poor health outcomes, lower job prospects, homelessness, incarceration, and substance abuse.
A Very Invasive Process
Finding good homes for those 8,188 children isn’t as easy as it should be, says Gov. Bevin. He says that’s bad for the kids in state care and for loving couples who could be good foster or adoptive parents.
And he speaks from experience.
Bevin says he and his wife, Glenna, have always had a heart for orphans, but it wasn’t until they had five children of their own that they seriously considered adoption. The couple fell in love with an 11-year old girl who played with their biological daughters at a local park. When they discovered she was living in a group foster care home, the Bevins applied to adopt her.
What followed was more than a year of background checks, social worker interviews, parenting classes, and other bureaucratic hoops that comprise Kentucky’s adoption process.
“It was a very intensive, very invasive process, very time-consuming, very expensive process,” says Bevin.
And in the end, an unsuccessful one: The state denied the Bevin’s application to adopt the young girl. The governor’s voice remains tinged with anger as he describes what he calls an arbitrary decision by adoption officials, and he laments that that little girl at the park probably never got the loving home she deserved.
The Bevins did eventually grow their family: Five years ago they adopted a young boy as well as three siblings from Ethiopia. The governor says the international adoption process took three years and was needlessly complicated, but it was still easier than what Kentucky’s adoption system put he and his family through. That’s when he decided something needed to be done to change it.
“This is a driving reason why I made the decision to run [for governor] because it needs to be fixed,” says Bevin. “And truth be told, it’s not just Kentucky, it’s everywhere. Nowhere in America is the foster system and adoption process working as it should.”
Making Reforms a Reality
Now, as governor, Bevin has made the issue a top priority.
“Kentucky will be the model for America when it comes to adoption and foster care,” the governor said in his State of the Commonwealth address in February. “There will be no state in America that more safely, more quickly, more efficiently, and more cost effectively facilitates the adoption process.”
To that end Bevin hired what he’s calling a czar to reform the state’s foster care and adoption systems. Daniel Dumas is a former senior vice president and professor of Christian ministry and leadership at Louisville’s Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is a Navy veteran and he and his wife have two adopted sons. Bevin says Dumas will report directly to him, but will closely work with CHFS staff as well as outside organizations to streamline foster care and adoption.
Lawmakers are also doing their part. The 2017 session of the Kentucky General Assembly passed legislation that will allow children to be placed with so-called “fictive” or non-blood kin such as a family friend, a godparent, a coach or teacher, or anyone else who has a “significant emotional relationship” with the child. DCBS Commissioner Johnson says that opens up a range of possibilities for putting a child into a home they already know.
Lawmakers also passed legislation to enable a child in foster care to get a driver’s license without the normally required signature of a parent or guardian. Johnson says this will give foster children the chance to enjoy the same rite of passage that their peers do, and make it easier for them to get to school or jobs.
Foster children helped promote both bills.
“As a child without a permanent family, you already feel remarkably different than other kids,” says Glenda Wright, a recent Murray State University who grew up in foster care. “These new laws can give children in out-of-home care the sense of security that comes with a loving family and the promise of independence that comes with growing up and getting your license.”
More foster care- and adoption-related bills will likely come before the 2018 General Assembly. House Speaker Jeff Hoover (R-Jamestown) recently formed a bipartisan working group to study ways to streamline the state’s adoption process. That committee has until December 15 to recommend legislation for the next session.
“The adoption process is an emotional rollercoaster, says Rep. David Meade (R-Stanford), co-chair of the working group and the father of an adopted daughter. “It is so difficult and costly that many loving families will chose not to adopt because of the red tape that they have to go through.”
Earlier this year lawmakers failed to approve support payments for relatives who take in a child of a family member. The state used to pay $300 a month to individuals who care for a related child, but the administration of former Gov. Steve Beshear ended those payments due to budget problems.
The fact that Kentucky no longer supports family members who provide foster care while it does pay a stipend of $25 a day to traditional foster parents could wind up before the U. S. Supreme Court. A Lexington woman who sought help for taking in two of her nephews is suing the state over the discrepancy. The U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in her favor, saying that if the state approves temporary placement of a child in the home of a relative, then that is equivalent to foster care and the state has to make support payments.
The Bevin Administration is expected to appeal that decision. The governor describes stipends for families as a “slippery slope.” He argues that cash payments could become an incentive for families to do what they should already be doing to care for their own.
“We’ve started to disconnect people from their true obligation and their responsibility and I don’t want to see that happen,” Bevin says. “And yet I know for a fact that there are people who need financial help. That’s where the state should be involved.”
The governor also rejects calls to increase state funding for foster care and adoption services. He contends that government isn’t the only solution to the problem. Rather than simply hiring more state social workers, Bevin says he wants more individuals, churches, and community groups to step up and help.
“The idea that we’re going to fix this problem by throwing more money and expanding the very things that have not worked is a huge mistake,” Bevin says. “We’ve got to start thinking differently.”
But more funding for social workers is desperately needed, according to Robin Leigh, a retired family resource and youth services center director in Bourbon County. She has fostered 51 children in addition to having two adopted children. Now she serves as a mentor to foster and adoptive families. Leigh says she gets many questions about how to navigate the state system and why the process takes so long. She argues the state needs additional social workers to investigate and certify prospective parents in a timelier manner.
The Joys and the Hardships
Despite their differences on funding, Leigh credits Bevin for making reforms to foster care and adoption a priority of his administration. And like the Bevins, she encourages everyone to consider helping a needy child.
“Once you get them in foster care, you love them like they’re yours,” says Leigh.
Beyond the initial language barrier and learning about differences in hair care, Gov. and First Lady Bevin say the mixing of their white, biological children with their black, adopted children has been seamless. Now they say they’re a walking, talking billboard for a harmonious blended family. In fact with a household of nine children ranging from seven to 18 years old, the Bevins say the real challenge is dealing with hormonal teenagers.
Based on her experiences as an adoptive parent, Glenna Bevin is joining her husband’s efforts to bring more attention to these issues. She’s formed a group of foster youth who provide the administration with their perspectives on foster care issues. And she’s helped recruit nearly 200 families who will serve as mentors and emotional supports to youth who are aging out of the foster care system.
First Lady Bevin is also partnering with the non-profit organization Save the Children on an effort to better prepare new mothers for the rigors of child care.
“They basically teach women… to be mentors to these other women in their communities,” Mrs. Bevin says. “A lot of the moms don’t know about developmental milestones, or bonding with your child, or don’t put the Mountain Dew in the bottle – just simple little things.”
She also wants to see that foster moms and dads are more fully briefed on what to expect when they take in a child.
“We have to make sure that these parents know what they’re getting into in the beginning, that they have all the information that they need,” Mrs. Bevin says.
By sharing their own stories about being adoptive parents, the Bevins hope to encourage other Kentuckians to open their homes to children in need. The governor says prospective parents don’t have to be perfect. They simply need a desire to provide a foster child with safety, security, and dignity.
“The joys that you have are the same from one kid to the next, and the heartbreaks are the same from one kid to the next,” says Gov. Matt Bevin. “This is your child as much as the next child is.”