Monday, July 03, 2000

State, foster care agency at odds

Baptist Homes' ban on gays is key issue

The Associated Press

        LOUISVILLE — The state and its largest private child-care agency have a few more days this week to forge a deal that may affect hundreds of children and workers in the foster care system.

        Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children, embroiled in a contract dispute with the state, said it will continue caring for wards of the state under a one-week contract extension reached Friday.

        The agreement halted immediate plans for massive cutbacks and case transfers by the Baptist agency.

        Baptist Homes has said it would voluntarily surrendered its $12 million state contract to care for and place children in foster homes so it could maintain its policy against employing homosexuals.

        Baptist Homes had 307 children in foster and residential care as of last Thursday, said Vickie Grassman, a Baptist Homes spokeswoman. All but a handful of the children are wards of the state.

        The transition began Thursday, with about 30 children slated to be removed from Baptist Homes' residential facilities and foster homes.

        “In an effort to keep foster families together, we are helping them to transition to state foster care or other private agencies,” Baptist Homes said in a statement.

        The loss of the state contract also would mean Baptist Homes might have to lay off at least half of its 465 workers. In Louisville, the Baptist Homes management team began scrutinizing which programs would remain open and the scope of those services.

        Ms. Grassman said Baptist Homes would rely on private donations to continue caring for as many children as possible.

        And state officials began looking for new homes for children entrusted to Baptist Homes' care.

        Baptist Homes' contract with the state was set to expire Saturday. But on Friday, at the urging of Gov. Paul Patton, talks between the agency and state resumed and both sides agreed to extend the contract.

        Mr. Patton has said that the state won't dictate the personnel policies of a contractor. He also said the important thing is to look out for the children.

        The falling out between the state and Baptist Homes began in October 1998, when the agency fired social worker Alicia Pedreira because she is a lesbian. Ms. Pedreira then filed a federal lawsuit against Baptist Homes and the state.

        “The state was and is a defendant because it is using taxpayers' money to subsidize discrimination,” said Jeff Vessels, executive director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky.

        The state then urged Baptist Homes to change its employment policy.

        Failing that, the state offered the agency a new $12 million contract but with a provision that assigned Baptist Homes the financial responsibility for discrimination lawsuits resulting from its employment policy.

        The contract also said the state could stop referring children there at any time.

        Initially last week, Baptist Homes' executive committee said it would accept the new state contract. But it reversed course days later after Viola Miller, secretary of the state Cabinet for Families and Children, said in a published report that she expected the state would stop referring children to Baptist Homes.

        Gov. Paul Patton said Thursday he thinks Ms. Mill er's comments were misinterpreted.

        “It is ludicrous to disturb the lives of these children based on their (the Baptist's board's) perception of what might happen,” he said.

        On Friday, Baptist Homes President Bill Smithwick told his staff that the Cabinet for Families and Children offered assurances that it would not remove any more children from its care while the negotiations continue. Mr. Smithwick added that the governor also has assured Baptist Homes that social workers, not the state, would make decisions about whether to send children to Baptist Homes.

        “We remain cautiously optimistic that we can reach an agreement with the commonwealth that will allow us to fulfill our mission to provide hope and care to Kentucky's troubled children,” he said.

        In the meantime, Baptist Homes wants the state to blunt the possible legal effects of a new state contract. Baptist Homes wants a cap on the amount it would reimburse the state for attorney fees and court judgments as a result of any lawsuit based on the agency's practices, Ms. Grass man said.

        Mr. Smithwick told his workers the state has offered “significant changes” to its contract proposal, but he didn't elaborate.

        Regardless of what happens between the state and Baptist Homes, Mr. Vessels said his client's goals for the lawsuit remain: “We continue to seek an end to taxpayer support for religion-based discrimination,” he said.

        “And we also want to ensure that young people are getting the best services possible with the state's money, and to us, that means being in an environment that is free of discrimination.”


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