Two States Near Plans to Terminate Parental Rights at Birth in Some Drug Cases

Two states are moving closer to legislation that would allow child welfare officials to immediately move newborns exposed to opioids toward adoption, an effort meant to address the growing number of children entering foster care due to neglect or abuse related to drug use.

In Kentucky, a broader child welfare bill focused on family preservation also included a caveat to terminate parental rights unless a parent was willing to enroll in treatment. Arizona’s legislature has passed a bill that would put a one-year clock on reunification for parents struggling with drug addiction.

Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin (R), who has adopted several children with his wife Glenna, is likely to sign a bill that would speed up termination of parental rights if parents struggling with addiction aren’t willing to seek drug treatment.

Kentucky’s House Bill 1 would allow the Cabinet for Health and Family Services to immediately move to terminate parental rights if any child is found to have been diagnosed with neonatal abstinence syndrome at the time of birth, meaning the child has problems prompted by exposure to opiate drugs while in the womb.

The law does provide two exceptions. The state may not seek a termination of parental rights (TPR) if the mother was prescribed and correctly using the drug, or if the mother “is currently, or within 90 days after the birth, enrolled in and maintaining substantial compliance with both a substance abuse treatment or recovery program.”

That exception is key as states like Kentucky begin to contemplate how to incorporate changes in federal law that yield more federal dollars for treating the addiction of parents. The Family First Prevention Services Act, passed in February, allows states a 12-month reimbursement window for treating parents who, without help, would lose their children to foster care.

That provision of Family First will take effect in October of 2019.

Discussions of the TPR issue before the bill was introduced “ranged from pretty quick triggers to perhaps those not quick enough,” said Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates. “When you get into parental termination, it’s a delicate balance to achieve.”

Brooks said the authors did an “excellent job working with judges and the recovery community” on that provision. “We feel like if a parent gets enrolled within 90 days, they will maintain parental rights.”

The number of children in foster care has increased nationwide each year since 2013. Kentucky has seen the number of youth in foster care rise from 6,979 in 2012 to 8,508 in 2017. Department for Community Based Services Commissioner Adria Johnson told The Chronicle last year that substance abuse factors into the cases of 71 percent of children entering care.

“The addiction epidemic is everywhere, but Kentucky is really a headline state on the intersection between that and child welfare,” Brooks said.

Click here for a full breakdown of House Bill 1, which includes plans for foster home recruitment, new kinship care supports, and several other items.

Arizona’s Senate Bill 1473, which was signed Thursday by Gov. Doug Ducey (R), shortens the permanency timeframe for any infant to one year, down from 18 months. Also, for any child younger than 3, the bill gives equal footing to foster parents and relatives in the decision as to who should adopt the child after the window closes.

The law also requires that the Department of Child Safety (DCS) initiate termination of parental rights within 10 business days if the court finds an “aggravating circumstance” in a substance abuse case. Those circumstances include exposure to drugs in the womb, or a licensed health care provider’s statement that a parent will be unable to get sober in the near future.

The bill includes a more vague exception than the Kentucky version: it permits DCS to pass on termination if it “is not in the best interests of the child.” That is a subjective determination that could be seen differently in any case, based on the workers and investigators involved.

SB 1473 is a rewrite of a previous bill that had divided child welfare advocates because of its hasty timeline to remove parental rights. Even one of the original bill’s sponsors had withdrawn her support when it came time for the Senate to vote.

This story was updated 04/06/18.

Christie Renick contributed to this story.

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John Kelly
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John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.

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