Kentucky isn’t releasing data on the status of thousands of abused and neglected children who were removed from the home of their biological parents, despite a state law aimed at creating transparency and accountability for these children and their caregivers.
Advocates and legislators want a full picture of children being raised by relatives or close family friends — known as kinship caregivers — before pressing for policy solutions to some of their problems.
Months after the Department of Community Based Services released a report on the status of these children — a report state officials acknowledge was incomplete and contained potential inaccuracies — officials say they need more time to gather and analyze additional data because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Being able to train all of that staff in a new system, in new services, in a new way to enter the information accurately is a challenge,” said Marta Miranda-Straub, commissioner of the Department of Community Based Services. “It’s on us. We need to do it.”
In Kentucky, an estimated one of every 12 children is being raised by a family friend or relative who isn’t their biological parent. That rate of kinship care is one of the highest in the U.S., totaling some 81,000 children.
The majority of those children live with family members under informal arrangements the state wouldn’t track, such as when the biological parents enter drug rehab or move out of state. But the state also hasn’t always kept tabs on the children removed from their original homes as a result of abuse and neglect and who now live in kinship placements. That could be as high as 33,000 children, advocates estimate.
The information gap makes it difficult to know how these kids are faring, and it’s why former Gov. Matt Bevin signed a law requiring the state “track and analyze data” on kinship caregiver placements.
The state began keeping track of some children in kinship care more than a year later, in April 2020 — about five months before the first data report about their improved tracking was due to lawmakers.
However, that report, which was obtained by KyCIR, contained just three-and-a-half months of data — between April 17 and August 1.
The report also did not include data on kinship care placements before April 2020, a blind spot the state says it is working to rectify.
Miranda-Straub, who was appointed DCBS commissioner by Gov. Andy Beshear last July, said the limited data set was a result of modifications to the state’s tracking software, which weren’t completed until April 2020.
“We didn’t have a lot of what we needed to do that report,” Miranda-Straub acknowledged. “We do now.”
DCBS leaders conceded the report likely contains inaccuracies due to data entry issues from staff unfamiliar with the new software. The report notes “training is ongoing to ensure staff are making the correct selections in data screens for provided services.”
DCBS offered recent data to KyCIR during an interview but had not provided it more than seven days later.
The agency won’t release its next report for another nine months, DCBS leaders said. That report will include data from “active” cases in which a relative caregiver has temporary custody.
“A lot of this stuff is in its infancy,” Miranda-Straub said. “We do need to be able to do a comparison and be able to have a whole year to capture the data, and what services they’re using, do [families] know they have access to it, how much education we do with those families, et cetera.”
The limited data show that between April 2020 and August 2020, 1,222 children had been placed with a relative caregiver or family friend who has been approved as a foster parent by the state, according to the DCBS report. That’s about 13% of the state’s total out-of-home care population, the report estimated.
Over that time, more than 200 children were placed directly into the custody of a kinship caregiver who isn’t approved as a foster parent. Of those children, 79% were white, 5% were Black, and 11% were “multi-racial,” while 94% of their caregivers were white.
“There is some sort of discrepancy there,” said Shannon Moody, senior policy and advocacy director at Kentucky Youth Advocates. “It tells me we have kids who are identified as multiracial being placed more often with white caregivers.”
Moody added it’s unclear the extent to which the discrepancy is due to the availability of white caregivers, potential biases among case workers, systemic socioeconomic disparities, or other factors.
The report also leaves major questions about the progress of children in kinship placements. The September report didn’t include required data on “benchmarks and outcomes for relative and fictive kin caregiver placements.”
The report also indicates a “low percentage” of caregivers are receiving monetary supports. Only 22% of the relative caregivers who were tracked said they received benefits through the Kentucky Transitional Assistance Program, or KTAP, while just 28% accepted a one-time payment known as the Relative Placement Support Benefit.
The report does not offer an explanation as to why, nor is it clear if these caregivers did not accept benefits or if they asked for and were denied these services.
Because most children in kinship care are raised by their grandparents — who are at higher risk of COVID-19 complications due to their age — the situation is even more dire during the pandemic.