Childhood should be carefree. Every child deserves to feel safe, cared for, and nurtured. This includes the nearly 10,000 Kentucky children in foster care and almost 100,000 in kinship care, a rate which is more than double the national average. They are not responsible for the circumstances that brought them into out-of-home care, whether that be drug addiction, incarceration, abuse or neglect. It is imperative that we set forth policy that protects the innocence of childhood for every child throughout the state, no matter their circumstance. Since taking the majority in 2017, our caucus has made tremendous strides in overhauling and reforming the child welfare system, guided by a goal of putting the needs of children first.

 We built on our progress this session by passing legislation that continues our march toward becoming the national gold standard for taking care of our most vulnerable children. HB 158, otherwise known as the Foster Child Bill of Rights, gives statutory rights to children in foster care – including the right to adequate food, clothing and shelter, a quality education, and a safe, secure, and stable family. These are just a few of the 16 rights granted in this legislation, which also expands background checks for the staff of child care facilities.

 The provision with the most immediate impact is that the decision to place a child up for adoption will become final after 72 hours, down from the current 20-day period. This change alone is expected to incentivize more adoptive parents to take in Kentucky children, and is just the latest barrier we are removing from placing children into loving homes. This is a transformative piece of legislation that will not only open up more loving, permanent homes for children in need, but will also help foster children better understand their worth and value.

 We also strengthened the role of foster parents by giving them a voice in court proceedings involving the termination of parental rights of the biological parent. Far too often, foster parents are left out of these legal proceedings, even though they have chosen to open up their home and hearts to a child in need. Once HB 446 is implemented, foster parents will be better able to advocate for the children they’ve opened up their home too.

 The positive work we did on the child welfare front did not stop there, as siblings placed in state care will now be guaranteed visitation rights with each other. SB 31 requires the Cabinet for Health and Family Services to provide frequent visitation or other ongoing interaction between siblings who have been removed from their home and placed separately in out-of-home care, like foster care. The ultimate goal is to keep children together, but that is not possible in some instances, making these visitation rights critically important to Kentucky’s youth.

 Furthermore, we passed HB 2, which positions Kentucky to provide more resources to children in the care of family members or close friends. The bill takes the first step in providing a comprehensive support program for grandparents and other family and caregivers who have been awarded custody, incorporating national best practices in order to put Kentucky in a more competitive position to draw federal funding for the program. HB 2 was critical in ensuring that caregivers are able to adequately meet the financial needs of the almost 100,000 total children in what would be considered kinship care.

As you can imagine, that number is so large and the services they need so vast, it will take a number of resources to assist them. This bill is a move in the right direction, but it is important to remember that this will be a long journey.

 Another item I would like to note is that all of these measures passed with overwhelming bipartisan support and the support of our Governor. While some like to suggest that there is constant division here in Frankfort, it is refreshing to know that both sides of the aisle can come together to protect the children of the Commonwealth.

 If you would like to connect with me over any issue you are passionate about, please reach out to me. I can be reached here at home anytime, or through the toll-free message line in Frankfort at 1-800-372-7181.If you would like more information, or to e-mail me, please visit the legislature’s website at www.legislature.ky.gov. You can also share your thoughts me with on my Twitter @ABowlingKY.

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