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There are just under 10,000 children in foster care here in Kentucky, a truly staggering number that continues to rise year after year. As I consistently say, our number one mission is to make Kentucky the best place to live and work — and that has to include how we approach the children in state care and kinship care. We have a legal obligation to do right by them. But, we also have a moral obligation to ensure our state serves them to the best of its ability. That makes the laws we pass regarding child welfare critical. Frankly, the stakes are too high to get it wrong.

During the 2020 Session, the General Assembly passed several measures to improve our child welfare system. Among them is HB 167, which builds on legislation we passed during 2019 to give foster parents a more prominent voice during court proceedings. I think we can all agree that foster parents offer valuable insight into what is best for a child in their care.

HB 167 protects them by allowing them to intervene anonymously in parental rights termination hearings. It only makes sense that families who have opened their homes to a child can advocate for their best interests.

We also approved legislation aimed at easing the transition to a new school for Kentucky’s foster children. HB 312 would expedite transferring a child’s confidential records between school districts and require more state collaboration with local school districts to help meet the child’s needs. Many schools struggle to help foster children because they simply do not have the information they need. This bill continues our mission to improve our children’s opportunities in foster care and builds on the Foster Child Bill of Rights passed during the 2019 Regular Session.

Senate Bill 115 opens career doors for foster and adoptive children. There are currently tuition waiver programs in place that help children in the foster care system pay for undergraduate work in college. Under the provisions of this bill, the waiver applies to graduate programs.

It also extends the period for eligibility. We hear time and again of the struggles and hardships children face when they age out of the foster care system. I hope that including graduate programs in the tuition waiver program will incentivize the continued pursuit of higher education and make it more affordable and accessible. Hopefully, this change gives individuals a leg up as they seek to better themselves through educational opportunities.

We need to find better ways to recruit and retain loving foster homes. Finding homes has been a big issue during the pandemic, with so much uncertainty and little administration guidance. However, we did not have enough foster homes before COVID-19. You can imagine that this is a big responsibility but can be life-changing for both the foster child and the foster parent.

I firmly believe that children’s future success in the foster care system is based largely on the support found in families and communities.

When my colleagues and I return to Frankfort in just over a hundred days, we will continue our commitment and prepared to take steps to keep kids and families safe. We must continue to look at all of these problems and bring forth compassionate, commonsense, and practical solutions.

Please contact me if I can ever be of assistance to you. I can be reached through the toll-free message line at 1-800-372-7181, and you can contact me via e-mail at Walker.Thomas@lrc.ky.gov. You can also keep track of committee meetings and potential legislation through the Kentucky legislature’s home page at legislature.ky.gov.

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