FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — The little girl was 11, living in a foster care group home, when she ended up playing tag in a Louisville park with the daughters of a wealthy investment manager who would one day be Kentucky’s governor.
Matt Bevin said he and his wife, Glenna, noticed how the girl attached herself to their daughters, “like she was just one of the kids.”
Moved by her situation, the Bevins started the process of trying to adopt her from Kentucky’s child-welfare system. They had their fingerprints taken, took parenting classes, had their fingerprints taken again, opened their home to an inspection, and were fingerprinted a third time.
The state ultimately rejected their application because, the Bevins said, they had five children and officials worried the girl wouldn’t get enough attention. So the Bevins “gave up” and went to Ethiopia to adopt four children, a process they called simpler and cheaper.
That was eight years ago, before Bevin became well-known for his failed challenge to U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell in the Republican primary and his surprising comeback win in the 2015 gubernatorial election.
Now Bevin’s in charge of the system he says failed them and the girl, an experience shaping one of his most ambitious initiatives: an overhaul of Kentucky’s child-welfare system.
A former state official said privacy rules prevent staff from commenting on the Bevins’ case. Health and Family Services Cabinet Secretary Vickie Yates Brown Glisson, appointed by Bevin in 2015, said his “firsthand knowledge of the burdensome bureaucracy and unnecessary requirements” of the system is why it’s being transformed.
The Bevins and their children split time between their Louisville home and the governor’s mansion in Frankfort, where he and his wife sat down with The Associated Press for an interview last month.
Bevin said he wants to “rethink the entire system,” a process that — excluding a small raise for state social workers he signed in 2016 — will come without a significant increase in spending. That puts him at odds with many child-welfare advocates who say the program suffers from underfunding and inadequate staffing.
“That’s just impossible,” said Democratic state Rep. Joni Jenkins, co-chairwoman of a committee studying child-welfare system changes.
He’s also picked a fight with family court judges, saying some “genuinely, I’m convinced, don’t even care.”
“The judges should not have the latitude to make the decisions that they are making. Because some of them are making terrible, terrible decisions,” Bevin said. “They are not looking at what is best for the child.”
It’s unclear what a governor could do to alter judicial decision-making in child-welfare cases, which Bevin acknowledges would be difficult. He said he’s asked his general counsel to “start looking at this.”
The strategy dovetails with Bevin’s broader plans to shake up government, including his aggressive use of executive orders, many of which have been challenged and, in some cases, struck down in court.
Legislative leaders are pursuing their own review of foster-care and adoption policies. Republican House Speaker Jeff Hoover said he’d encourage the Bevin administration “to understand, it is the legislative body that makes the policy.”
Chief Justice John Minton said he’s confident family court judges are qualified and dedicated, and said he and the governor should “provide positive leadership and encouragement.”
The latest 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.”
Bevin said Kentucky has become more focused on preserving troubled families than what’s best for the child. That claim runs counter to some child-welfare advocates, who say children fare better when they remain with their families if possible.
Bevin said he knows of judges — he wouldn’t name them — who’ve removed children from stable foster homes, putting them back with drug-addicted parents.
“The moment that parental rights come at the expense of what’s best for the child, they should take a back seat. Period,” Bevin said.
Jefferson County Family Court Judge Paula Sherlock said she wants to assure Bevin “our judges care deeply about the welfare of our children.”
“However, in the process of adjudicating abuse and neglect cases, our courts cannot ignore the constitutionally protected rights of parents,” she said.
Bevin said he wants to find members of Kentucky’s more than 6,000 churches to adopt or become foster parents. He’s reached out to the Kentucky Baptist Convention, the state’s largest denomination with nearly 2,400 churches and 750,000-plus members. The convention is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, to which Bevin’s been a major donor.
The convention runs Sunrise Children’s Services, Kentucky’s largest privately-run childcare provider, which has been embroiled in a federal lawsuit since 2000 about proselytizing children in the state’s care.
Former Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear pushed to settle the lawsuit with an agreement that the American Civil Liberties Union would monitor the group. Bevin wants a federal judge to throw the settlement out.
Convention executive director Paul Chitwood became a foster parent a few years ago. He promotes the convention’s “Be the One” campaign, which urges each church to have at least one family foster a child in Sunrise’s care.
“This was never the state’s job. This job belonged to the church,” he said. “We should be very cautious in criticizing the state for its brokenness when we are not doing our job.”
Bevin, still haunted by the failed adoption, has no qualms about criticizing the state. The Bevins never saw the 11-year-old again.
“She’s an adult now, and it just crushes me,” Bevin said, his eyes glistening. “There’s nobody who is giving her any real love. There are people who were taking care of her. But nobody was loving her.”
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