- Associated Press - Thursday, February 9, 2017

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) - State lawmakers are advancing bills to overhaul the state’s foster care and adoption system one day after Republican Gov. Matt Bevin used his State of the Commonwealth address to vow Kentucky would be a model for the nation.

Thursday, a House panel unanimously advanced proposals that would let state social workers place children with adults who are not related to them by blood, but have an “emotionally significant relationship” with the child. They also approved a bill that would let foster children get driver’s licenses, a rite of passage denied to many teenagers in the state system because they don’t have a parent to sign the application.

Both bills were backed by Bevin and his wife, Glenna, who worked closely with lawmakers in crafting the proposals.

“It is my vision, it is my intent and I am determined to see happen, the fact that Kentucky will be a model for America when it comes to adoption and foster care,” Bevin said during his speech on Wednesday to a joint session of the General Assembly.

For the Bevins, the issue is personal. The couple tried to adopt a child from Kentucky’s foster care system several years ago, only to be denied because they already had five children. The Bevins went on to adopt four children from Ethiopia, giving them nine total - one of the largest families to ever fill the Governor’s Mansion.

Thursday’s bills are the first of many changes that are expected over the next year, according to Tim Feeley, a former family court judge who is now the deputy secretary for the Cabinet for Health and Family Services.

“We are reaching to the faith-based community and nonprofit community to get some help in the adoption and foster care area,” Feeley said. “Government can’t do it alone.”

While Kentucky law allows nonrelatives to care for children in crisis, only judges can make that call. Supporters say the bill would give social workers more options in an emergency, including a neighbor, a baby sitter or a church member whom the child is familiar with.

Complicating things is a recent federal court decision that said Kentucky must pay family members who care for children the same as it does licensed foster parents. Feeley said state officials are reviewing the decision carefully, noting that it would be expensive for the state.

“We’re looking at ways to bring it back into being more fiscally responsible,” he said.

“We should put the kids first and figure out the financials later,” Democratic state Rep. Joni Jenkins replied.

“We have to do both at the same time,” Feeley said.

The possible changes are welcome news for Glenda Wright, president of Voices of the Commonwealth, an advocacy group. Wright was placed in the foster care system in 2009 when she was 13 after her grandmother died and no one was left to care for her or her three siblings. She said not being able to get a drivers’ license at 16 is devastating to most teenagers.

“That affects them negatively whenever they are told that a system that is made to help them is actually hurting them in such a huge way,” she said.

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