Report criticizes social workers
Inquiry finds lies, falsified records
By Deborah Yetter
State social workers and supervisors in the Hardin County region lied in court, falsified records about child abuse and neglect cases and mistreated parents and children, a state investigation has found.
In 13 cases, alleged violations have been referred to local prosecutors for possible criminal charges, according to the report released yesterday by the inspector general for the Cabinet for Health and Family Services.
"Such individual conduct is cause for grave concern and must not in any way whatsoever be condoned, minimized or excused," according to the report from Inspector General Robert J. Benvenuti III.
The workers are not named in the report, and state officials declined to identify them or say how many are involved, saying they don't want to jeopardize possible criminal charges or disciplinary action.
Mary Henderson, a Lexington mother of four who has testified before two state panels in the past year about her problems with the child welfare system, called the findings "heart-wrenching."
"I think about how many families that have been affected by illegal and immoral behavior," she said.
The investigation was triggered by a report by advocates a year ago that found families in that region believed they were treated badly by the system, that their rights were ignored and social workers hastily sought removal of children from homes for so-called "quick trigger adoptions."
The inspector general's report did not substantiate the adoption allegation but found other problems.
The report found that most social workers are dedicated and honest, but some in the eight-county Lincoln Trail social service region operated a rogue child welfare system "free from any meaningful oversight," the report said.
The year-long investigation focused on conduct of state workers in cases where children were removed from their parents -- sometimes permanently -- and placed in adoptive or foster homes.
Sharon Ray of Elizabethtown, who battled the local social service office for several years to get custody of her stepgrandson, who had been severely abused, said she's glad problems she observed have been exposed.
"What really bothered me is that they weren't acting in the child's best interest," she said.
'Cloak of secrecy… must be removed'
Tom Emberton Jr., state undersecretary for social services, said he doesn't know immediately how the cabinet can correct problems in past cases, but officials will try to do so.
He said most top supervisors at the Hardin office have been replaced and a management team at the region reports to him.
The inspector general's report lists a number of recommendations to improve the system and reduce the possibility of abuses. But its primary recommendation is for the state to eliminate the secrecy that surrounds the child welfare system and court proceedings involving child abuse and neglect.
"We strongly believe that the cloak of secrecy that currently dominates the process is not in the best interests of Kentucky's children and must be removed as part of any material reform," it said.
Worse than suspected
Alleged violations cited in the report include:
Workers falsified records showing they had conducted home visits of families under investigation. Also, supervisors sometimes ordered social workers to conduct home visits when no one was home to make it appear families were not cooperative.
Workers added or omitted information in case files to mislead judges who must decide whether to terminate parents' rights. Some workers also gave false testimony in court about cases.
Workers ignored parents' complaints about problems in foster homes, including one case in which the biological mother had said her children were filthy, poorly clothed and lice-infested when she saw them. Investigators found the foster home dirty, cluttered and foul-smelling, with dogs and goats in a yard that was overgrown and strewn with trash.
Supervisors sometimes created their own policies, and arbitrarily tried to remove children from homes. In one case, a judge became so angry at how social workers treated a family whose children had been removed temporarily that he told them "they no longer needed to cooperate with the cabinet."
Workers who tried to report wrongdoing said they suffered retaliation. In one case, supervisors sought to discipline a worker who had provided evidence to the inspector general during the investigation.
Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, which helped produce the report, called the findings "shocking."
"It's worse than we ever suspected," said Brooks, whose organization compiled its report on the Hardin County region along with David Richart, a longtime youth advocate in Louisville and director of the National Institute on Children, Youth and Families.
The report does not state a motive for the alleged wrongdoing but cited a "culture" among some workers "which thrived on the power of controlling certain families."
Richart said that is consistent with what the advocates found through interviews with families and workers in the Hardin County region.
"There are people who are power hungry working cases," he said.