Kentucky's Cabinet for Health and Family Services has come under scrutiny for allowing social workers to take children from homes using blank emergency custody orders pre-signed by judges. The agency reportedly scrapped the policy after numerous complaints, but critics say the practice was illegal from the get-go and "a gross miscarriage of justice."
What are the details?
An expose by WDRB-TV revealed the practice in March, reporting that while state and local officials admitted the system wasn't ideal, it was commonplace protocol on weekends or when a judge had gone home for the day when social workers were concerned about abuse or neglect allegations.
Yet, affected families, attorneys, and even some judges have cried foul, saying the policy was against Kentucky law — likening it to police raiding a home with a blank search warrant. In fact, social workers are accused of just that: Taking kids with blank forms bearing photocopied signatures, filling out the documents later, and leaving parents in the dark until a hearing three days after the children are removed from a home.
Chief Jefferson District Court Judge Anne Haynie acknowledged it was policy but told the outlet that while the law prohibits children from being removed on a "verbal order," pre-signed orders are not illegal. She explained that there are safeguards in place; for instance, social workers are required to call a judge and explain the scenario during a recorded conversation before a jurist gives the go-ahead to remove a child from a guardian's custody.
Haynie also noted that a Home of the Innocents employee is "present with the law enforcement officer and/or cabinet worker" during such a call. The Home of the Innocents is a nonprofit organization based in Louisville. It is unclear what — if any — authority or weigh-in the nonprofit's employees had in joining the calls.
A spokeswoman from the state's Administrative Office of the Courts told TheBlaze in an email that "the court system does not have a contract with the Home of the Innocents." Regardless, "copies of blank orders with signatures from Jefferson District Court judges were left at the Home of the Innocents ... and filled in by cabinet workers," WDRB reported.
Legal or not, judges might not always be certain of what they're "signing" off on. Attorney Thomas Clay said one social worker allegedly filled out three blank forms to remove all of the kids from a home, even though he had the nod from a judge to take only one child.
A Kentucky judge speaking to WDRB on the condition of anonymity said of the blank removal order system: "That is a gross miscarriage of justice that should not happen. That's on the cabinet."
When judges review a social worker's affidavit for removing a child, they are required to affirm several findings before approving the order; not just agree or disagree with whether it is warranted under the described scenario. The Cabinet has now reportedly done away with photocopied or stamped judges' signatures, and instead implemented a system where judges can review an order and sign it electronically.
Typically, family court judges get to know social workers after seeing them in court frequently. But the judges hearing from social workers after hours in Jefferson County are district court judges who don't hear child removal cases during working hours. Nonetheless, some were willing to put their signatures on blank documents and rely on a phone call.
Relying on a phone call isn't unusual when it comes to investigating whether a child is being abused or neglected. In fact, it's critical for observers to alert the authorities when a child is feared to be in danger.
But the act of taking a child from their home is undeniably traumatic (and the trauma is long-lasting), which is why state and local agencies typically take it so seriously.
What's notable about Kentucky's former policies is that the state is all-too-familiar with false claims. In recent years, a Kentucky social worker was convicted of making bogus allegations against multiple parents and was ultimately sentenced to a year in jail for her false reporting.