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Op-Ed: State Must Reconsider Its Sunrise Contract

The following op-ed is written by State Senator Matt Castlen (R-Owensboro).

My office has recently received many phone calls from concerned constituents, including pastors I have enjoyed being acquainted with over the years. The cause of concern arose when the Beshear administration modified a long-standing and agreed-upon contract with Sunrise Children's Services—a foster and orphan care organization affiliated with the Kentucky Baptist Convention. Like many others, I was dismayed by this unnecessary decision.

Sunrise has provided exceptional services to families and vulnerable children across our Commonwealth. Its proven record of cooperation and partnership with the Cabinet for Health and Family Services (CHFS) and the Department for Community Based Services is commendable. Sunrise has assisted with placing children with complex needs in loving homes, while remaining true to their purpose and mission for decades. When Sunrise cannot perform a service, the organization has long worked with substitute contractors to assure children are taken care of.

Sunrise began its mission over 150 years ago. In 1978, during the administration of then-Governor Julian M. Carroll, a Democrat and retired State Senator, the state chose to contract with Sunrise because of the undeniable good it does for Kentucky families and children. Throughout nine previous gubernatorial administrations (seven Democrats and two Republicans), including our current Governor's father, Steve Beshear, the state's contract with Sunrise respected the organization's convictions by including an addendum to protect its sincerely held religious beliefs. The strong partnership between the Commonwealth and Sunrise has allowed us to help children whose needs would otherwise go unmet.

Now we find that the Beshear administration has abruptly modified the contract. The new language removing the addendum in the contract is one the administration must know Sunrise cannot agree to sign. In changing the agreement, the administration is recklessly alienating a proven child welfare leader, and our most vulnerable children will ultimately suffer.

Sunrise is a vital partner in finding loving homes for children. In the fiscal years 2020 and 2021 alone, it served 1,636 Kentucky children and helped find homes for 588 of them. The organization has never been called into question or complained against by a family or a child. However, it has been the target of special interest groups with political agendas.

This decision is reckless. Reports from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services show that Kentucky has led the nation in child abuse and neglect for three consecutive years. We are beginning to come out of a pandemic during which the state-mandated child care centers closed and left kids to learn from home. The number of reported cases of child abuse and neglect have dangerously plummeted during this time, and it is no coincidence. Decreased reports do not mean child abuse and neglect have lessened. It means that signs of the abuse have not been seen due to orders closing the essential places where children are safe, and professionals are trained to identify abuse and neglect. 

The Governor's posturing on the contract with Sunrise is done behind a thinly veiled legal argument. First, CHFS is attempting to hold the organization accountable to a federal regulation that even the Biden administration is not enforcing. Second, there is currently a dispute before the Supreme Court of the United States regarding a similar case in Pennsylvania. A ruling may result in a decision that would be precedent in this controversy. The Governor's administration's position lacks sufficient legal support, but worse, it negatively impacts some of Kentucky's most vulnerable children.

Furthermore, the administration's decision to modify Sunrise's contract conflicts with legislative provisions passed by the Kentucky General Assembly during the 2021 Regular Session. House Bill (HB) 192 explicitly prohibits CHFS from interfering with children's services contractors' sincerely held religious convictions.

At this critical time, the administration must focus on strengthening partnerships with community leaders, advocates, and providers to protect Kentucky's children. The worst thing the state can do is sever relationships, especially with allies as strong as Sunrise. I find this decision unconscionable and regrettable. I was pleased last month to join twenty-six of my colleagues in the State Senate to deliver a letter to the Governor's Office requesting the administration's reconsideration. I want to remain hopeful that the administration will choose to resolve the dispute for the sake of Kentucky's families and children. I encourage all Kentuckians who care about this issue to share their thoughts with the Governor's Office by leaving a message at 502-564-2611 or visiting governor.ky.gov/contact.

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