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Ky. Baptist children’s agency settles hiring/referral dispute with state

FRANKFORT, Ky. (BP)–Just when it looked as though Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children’s contract with the state would expire, uprooting children and forcing massive layoffs, a call from the governor initiated a reprieve until both sides were able to reach an agreement.

For two weeks, KBHC employees and Baptists throughout the commonwealth followed the roller coaster story of deals made, questioned motives and deals broken.

That ride smoothed out July 6 with a signed contract, but a pending lawsuit leaves some issues in doubt.

Earlier this year, state officials speculated that the contract with KBHC, the largest private provider of childcare in Kentucky, might not be renewed because of KBHC’s hiring policy that bars homosexuals from employment. The agency’s firing of a lesbian worker has landed it and two state cabinets that contract with KBHC in a federal lawsuit.

But on June 23, KBHC President Bill Smithwick announced that a new contract agreement had been reached. KBHC’s hiring policy would remain unchanged, but the agency would agree to bear the full cost of defending its hiring practices. Furthermore, he said, the contract spelled out that state case workers could stop sending children to KBHC for any reason they choose.

Four days after the announcement, however, an article in the Louisville Courier-Journal newspaper quoted Viola Miller, head of Kentucky’s Cabinet for Families and Children, as saying it was “very possible” that the agency might simply stop sending children to KBHC institutions and foster parents.

Two days before the contract was set to expire, Smithwick called a press conference to announce the Baptist agency would not sign a contract binding it to all the costs of the upcoming legal battle with no assurances of further business with the state.

“The state has asked us to indemnify them without any boundaries whatsoever, all costs, attorney’s fees,” Smithwick said. “On the other hand they’re saying, ‘We’re not going to send them any more children.’ Now why would you enter into a contract like that? It makes no sense.”

Rejecting the contract would have cost the agency more than half its projected budget and therefore result in layoffs for at least half the agency’s 465-member staff, he said.

Within a day, Gov. Paul Patton asked KBHC officials to reconsider their decision.

Smithwick said new negotiations with the governor’s office resulted in two significant developments.

First, “the contract language has changed to the point that it specifically allows social workers to make their decisions individually, with no overriding cabinet policy that would prohibit them sending children our way,” he said.

Second, the governor promised to write to all state case workers stating that it’s up to the individual social workers as to which contract agencies they will send children.

“That was really what the whole thing has hinged on,” Smithwick said.

He reiterated that KBHC hasn’t changed its hiring policy in order to reach an agreement.

“We have not moved one bit on our family values, in our employment policies regarding homosexuals. We’re right back where we started,” Smithwick said. “I would like for Kentucky Baptists who have ever had a doubt about our conviction to being a Christ-centered ministry and taking any public reimbursements to know from this experience that we are not vacillating on that.”

The past two months of negotiations on the contract have impacted KBHC’s bottom line, he added.

“We have suffered some significant financial losses because of the turmoil that this has caused. Children have not been referred to us, but we’ve had to maintain our overhead to keep care of the kids that we do have,” he said.

The agency has gone from a high of 360 children in residence care to about 290. Smithwick estimated half the decrease is a result of a decline in state referrals.

“It’s probably going to take a while to get back where we were, and we still need help from our friends to make up the difference,” he said.

Still unsettled is a federal lawsuit filed by Alicia Pedreira, a former employee who was fired because she is a lesbian. Among the claims of the suit is that the state’s funding for KBHC and its religious-based employment policy violates the First Amendment call for separation of church and state.

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  • David Winfrey