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Kentucky Could Require Labeling Drug-Dependent Babies as Abused

LRC Public Information

A drug-dependent baby born in Kentucky could automatically be labeled an "abused or neglected child," a change that would require state officials to investigate and begin the process of terminating parental rights.

Any child born dependent on drugs would be considered abused or neglected unless the mother is enrolled and complying with a drug treatment program. The designation would require state officials to begin the process of terminating parental rights within 60 days of the birth, according to bill sponsor Republican Rep. David Meade.

The number of drug dependent babies has been increasing across the country, a consequence of the ongoing opioid epidemic. Kentucky had twice the national rate of drug dependent babies in 2013, according to a recent study by the University of Kentucky and others.

The change is just one component of House Bill 1 , a sweeping, bipartisan overhaul of the state's foster care and adoption system. Kentucky had more than 8,600 children in state custody as of Feb. 4. A federal review of Kentucky's child-welfare system found the state didn't meet government standards, including ones requiring that "children are, first and foremost, protected from abuse and neglect."

House Bill 1 is an attempt to fix some of those issues. It would impose timelines on the court system to speed up the adoption process. One way it would do that is requiring state officials to begin the process of terminating parental rights over any child who has been in state custody for 15 months over a four-year period.

Meade said that idea was based on conversations with foster children who talked about how demoralizing it was to languish in the court system for years.

"Waiting for that end result to come was very heartbreaking for them. Everybody wants closure for that," he said. "That's what we're doing by establishing these timelines. There is going to be closure at some point."

The bill is a priority for Republican Gov. Matt Bevin. He and his wife say they tried and failed to adopt a girl from Kentucky's child welfare system years ago. They said they grew so frustrated with the process they gave up and eventually adopted four children from Ethiopia.

"I couldn't be happier. I think this is the most beautiful thing I have seen in a very, very long time," Glenna Bevin told reporters after the committee hearing. "Coming together for our children, what more do you want?"

The changes could cost a lot of money. One change would require state officials to review each child's case every three months. Each review takes about five hours to complete. Officials with the Cabinet for Health and Family Services estimate they would have to spend between $1 million and $1.5 million to hire up to 25 people to do the work.

State officials also warned that beginning the process of ending parental rights after 15 months in state custody could put up to $94 million in federal funding at risk. That's because the change would be stricter than federal rules allow.

Meade said Kentucky has asked the federal government for an opinion on that issue. He said attorneys with the Legislative Research Commission and other groups have assured him Kentucky would not be at risk of losing federal money.

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