What is Environmental Neglect of a Child

I finished a five-hour long hearing (known as a CAPTA hearing) appealing the finding of neglect by the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, Department for Protection and Permanency (“Cabinet”). I will not know the outcome of this for at least thirty (30) days and even then the recommendation by the hearing officer will not be final. So, I do not want to comment on this specific case. However, it was an “environmental neglect” investigation that resulted in a finding of neglect and I discovered in the hearing that the investigation worker did not even know the regulatory requirements for the investigation to even have been taken. So, I thought I would write a little bit about that.

The Cabinet operates under Kentucky Revised Statutes (“KRS”) found in the 600 section of the code AND they also must comply with the Kentucky Administrative Regulations (“KAR”) found in KAR 1:330. That regulation requires two elements to be present to move forward with an environmental neglect investigation. First, there must be “serious health hazard” in the home. Second, the person in the caretaking role of the children must fail to take appropriate or reasonable steps to fix the serious environmental hazard. If either of these elements is absent, then the Cabinet can still get involved, but only in the capacity of determining if the family is in need of services or not.

A Family In Need of Services Assessment (“FINSA”) is meant to help families that are struggling in some way and need help, but do not fall into the category of neglectful or abusive. Unfortunately, there is tremendous subjectivity built into these matters, especially when it comes to housekeeping. Social workers raised in very clean and neat environments find dirty homes to be offensive. Social workers who do not understand the demands of parenting often fail to take into account that housekeeping falls to a lower priority in meeting the children’s’ need when resources of time and energy are limited.

So, many of these “dirty house” investigations get substantiated based on the workers own perceptions and biases. There is no standard adopted by KRS or KAR that comes anywhere near an objective scale. The reality is, children live in dirty conditions and still thrive. In fact, some theorize that excessively clean homes pose a greater health risk long-term than dirty homes. I read one article that said that mobile infants and toddlers develop better motor skills when there is some clutter of toys allowed rather than everything being kept neat and tidy. But, social workers are not given such information and they are left with no objective way to assess whether a home is merely dirty or if it poses a “serious health hazard”. It is entirely subjective.

The subjectivity extends to what are reasonable or appropriate steps to take to ameliorate or fix the health hazards. I have found that some social workers are fairly laid back while other ones are quite demanding. Again, it comes back to that individual social worker’s disposition and perception. If you find yourself in such a situation, go ahead and file the CAPTA appeal form or speak to an attorney well within the thirty (30) day period in which an appeal can be filed.

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