Top Kentucky child protection leader steps down amid foster care surge
by Deborah Yetter, Courier Journal –
Gov. Matt Bevin announces a new program that will allocate almost $11 million to target adoption and foster care. Sam Upshaw Jr./Louisville Courier Journal
This story may be updated.
The top official overseeing child protection in Kentucky plans to leave her job as commissioner of the Department for Community Based Services, an agency spokesman said Monday.
Adria Johnson, appointed by Gov. Matt Bevin in January 2016 to run the state Department for Community Based Services, has informed officials she plans to resign, said Doug Hogan, spokesman for the Cabinet for Health and Family Services.
“The transition and effective date of her resignation are still being determined,” Hogan said. He didn’t provide further information or say whether Johnson was available for comment.
As commissioner, Johnson also oversees other social service areas including adult protection and benefits such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps).
Bevin identified reforming child welfare, especially foster care and adoption, as one of his top priorities when he took office in December 2015. As a candidate Bevin had described the state child services agency as “a convoluted, backward, broken machine.”
Johnson’s departure comes amid continuing turnover at the human services cabinet under the Bevin administration.
It also comes as many state human services agencies, including Kentucky’s, are facing increased pressure from a surge of children into foster care largely attributed to the addiction crisis sweeping many states.
On June 3, Kentucky reported more than 9,500 children in foster care, the highest in recent memory. And the agency has been plagued for years by budget cuts and high turnover of state social workers.
In December, Indiana’s top child welfare official quit her job, warning that the state’s policies will “all but ensure children will die,” according to the IndyStar.
Mary Beth Bonaventura, Indiana’s director of the Department of Child Services who had worked in child welfare for 36 years, cited budget cuts, inadequate staff and outdated technology in her resignation letter.
Johnson is among several top officials to leave Kentucky’s human services agency in recent months.
In January, Vickie Yates Brown Glisson, quit her job as cabinet secretary to run for Congress as a Republican challenger to incumbent Democrat John Yarmuth, who represents Louisville’s 3rd Congressional District.
Bevin recently named a former top aide, Adam Meier, as secretary.
On June 1, state Medicaid Commissioner Steve MIller, who helped shape Bevin’s plan to restructure Medicaid, announced his retirement just a month before Kentucky is to launch major changes including work requirements for some covered under the federal-state health plan.
In January, an outside consultant Bevin had appointed as his adoption “czar,” with a mission to help reform child services, abruptly left the job with no explanation. The state terminated the $240,000-a-year contract with Dan Dumas, a former executive at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, after just seven months.
And last year, two other top officials appointed under Bevin left abruptly, one former state health commissioner Hiram Polk, a respected surgeon and former University of Louisville medical professor.
Polk, who resigned Sept. 17, declined to comment at the time on the reason for his resignation except to say it was in a dispute about how to best spend public health funds.
Also in September, the agency’s inspector general, Robert S. Silverthorn Jr., a top state official involved in the effort to shut down Kentucky’s last abortion clinic, resigned.
Silverthorn, whose March 2017 letter to EMW Women’s Surgical Center seeking to revoke the clinic’s license triggered a federal lawsuit challenging state regulation of abortion clinics, left the cabinet Sept. 28. That case is still pending in U.S. District Court, awaiting a final decision from Judge Greg Stivers.
Silverthorn, a lawyer and retired U.S. Army major general, declined to comment about his departure other than to say in an email he had “returned to private life.”
Johnson previously worked for the administration of Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer as a housing and human services official. She also has held corporate jobs at Brown & Williamson, LG&E and Humana.
She received a bachelor of science degree in accounting from Ball State University and completed postgraduate courses from the University of Louisville.
Bevin took office with the goal of overhauling social services. But the department continues to be plagued by scarce resources.
The state budget approved this year by the General Assembly will direct millions of dollars of additional funding into social services.
The increases, sought by Bevin, include about $22.2 million over the next two budget years to give raises up to 10 percent to state social workers, who start at $33,644 a year.
And it includes another $28 million to hire more social workers and upgrade technology for staff who use outdated computers and phones. The budget also includes millions of dollars more for care and services for children removed from homes because of abuse or neglect.
But the social services agency continues to face budget pressure, including costs of a federal court ruling requiring it to pay relatives who provide free foster care the same as it does licensed foster families. While the agency said earlier this year it would comply with the court order and make the payments, a legal dispute continues over who is eligible.