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Foster parents battle Hardin social workers


Couple seek placement of grandsons with them


By Deborah Yetter • • June 15, 2009

When her son and daughter-in-law were jailed last year on methamphetamine charges — leaving their two children behind — Patricia Schroer and her husband, Richard, both state-certified foster parents, tried to open their Valley Station home to the boys.

“I wanted my grandchildren,” Patricia Schroer said.

But a year later, the Schroers, who want to become foster parents to the boys, ages 4 and 16, said they are still battling social workers from Hardin County, where the boys’ father and mother were arrested.

Advocates said that the case suggests that difficulties continue with the Hardin County social service region, which has a lengthy history of alleged problems dating back a decade.

“It’s an old song with different lyrics,” said David Richart, a Louisville youth advocate and consultant who helped compile a 2006 report that detailed numerous alleged abuses by social service workers in the area.

The older Schroer grandson is in a Nelson County foster home. His brother has been with the Schroers for a year, although the couple has no legal authority to care for him.

State officials said the couple could, on their own, go to court and seek guardianship of the boys. But the Schroers said there’s no guarantee they would get guardianship and since the older boy is already in foster care in another home, they would like the state to place him in their home too.

With foster care, the Schroers said they would be able to get financial assistance — the state pays about $25 per day per child and provides health coverage — along with legal authority to do things such as enroll the boys in school and obtain medical care for them.

“What is wrong with this picture?” asked Patricia Schroer, who said state workers from Hardin County have stonewalled the couple’s efforts and rarely return telephone calls or respond to requests for information.

“There’s no cooperation,” said Richard Schroer, a substitute teacher who is the boys’ stepgrandfather. “It’s like they do whatever they want,” he said.

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Case raises questions

Hardin County social service officials were not available for comment because of confidentiality requirements, state officials said.

Jim Grace, head of child protective services for the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, said he couldn’t speak about specifics of the case for the same reason.

But in general, he said, the cabinet always tries to work with families and place children with the nearest relatives when possible.

“We try our best,” Grace said. “If there’s an appropriate relative, that’s always preferable.”

But the Schroers claimed the state mishandled the case from the start when child-protection workers failed to find abuse or neglect on the part of the boys’ parents — though both are incarcerated following felony drug convictions. Without that finding, it makes it more difficult to remove the boys from their parents’ custody.

It also bars the Schroers from a program called Kinship Care, which the state promotes as a way to help grandparents or others with the expense of caring for children of relatives. Kinship Care provides $300 per month per child — but only in cases with a finding of abuse or neglect that leads to removal of children from the home.

Richart said that he was “dumbfounded” that workers didn’t at least find neglect on the parents’ part, based on the fact they are incarcerated after admitting to serious drug charges.

“It sounds like they completely dropped the ball,” he said.

Children’s advocates said the case raises many questions, including whether the state has solved problems in the Hardin County social service office, the subject of several highly critical outside reports, including one from a grand jury.

“It seems like Hardin County won’t go away,” said Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates. “Is the welfare of the kids the bottom line or is it bureaucratic control?”

Alleged abuses detailed

Brooks’ agency, working with Richart, produced the 2006 report detailing alleged abuses by workers in the region.

Their report led to a cabinet inspector general’s investigation that found that state social service workers lied in court, falsified documents and bullied families under their supervision.

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A subsequent Hardin County grand jury investigation resulted in a scathing report on the misconduct of social service workers but found that too much time had elapsed to charge any individuals.

Richart, who consults with families involved in child-welfare cases, said he continues to receive calls and complaints from that area.

“It’s not just about this one case,” he said. “It’s a whole organizational culture.”

Grace said he’s not aware of any particular problems with the Hardin County region, one of nine social service areas across the state.

“We have incidental things that come up there like we do in other places,” he said.

The Schroers said they are frustrated by the state’s lack of action on the case — especially regarding the grandson in their home.

“We have made several attempts to get Hardin County to get the paperwork going to get legal, temporary custody of this little boy,” Richard Schroer said. “They have refused to do so.”

All the couple has is a brief, handwritten note that the boys’ mother wrote from jail, requesting that the Schroers gain custody while the parents are incarcerated.

The couple said they have temporarily stopped accepting other foster children in order to focus on this case and care for the 4-year-old.

Yearlong tribulationThe Schroers said the ordeal began in June 2008 when they learned that the boys’ parents had been arrested on drug charges. Patricia Schroer said she picked up the boys and brought them to her home, hoping to obtain temporary custody.

But soon afterward, the older boy ran away and returned to the Hardin County area, where he was picked up by police as a runaway, she said. Schroer said state social service officials told her they planned to place him in a foster home in Hardin County — to which the Schroers agreed, believing that to be a good, temporary solution.

Instead, he was placed in Nelson County and for several months the Schroers had no idea where he was despite repeated calls to his social worker. Patricia Schroer said she learned of her grandson’s whereabouts in November after he borrowed a cell phone from a friend at school and called her.

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“He said, ‘Nanny, could I please come home?’ ” she said. “That’s when I learned he was in Nelson County.”

The Schroers arranged for the teenager to visit at Christmas and on weekends. After the first of the year, they began asking to have him placed in their home. But the judge handling his case wanted him to finish the school year, which they accepted, the Schroers said.

But with the school year over, neither the Schroers nor the 16-year-old know when he will get to live with them, they said.

Social workers aren’t able to tell her, Patricia Schroer said, and the boy — who thought he would get to come to the Schroers’ home after the last day of school — is increasingly concerned.

“He’s anxious, he wants to come back here,” she said. “He wants to be with family.”

Frankfort may reviewPatricia Schroer said she made several calls to the state cabinet ombudsman — who is supposed to help resolve complaints — but got no response. After her most recent call, someone from the office called back and said it agreed to “look into” her complaint, she said.

Grace said officials in Frankfort look into any cases brought to their attention and likely would review this one.

But the Schroers said the ordeal has left them exhausted and suspicious of child-welfare officials.

“Where is the protection for the children?” Patricia Schroer said. “It just blows me away.”

Reporter Deborah Yetter can be reached at (502) 582-4228.

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