Sunday, May 18, 2008

State social worker charged with DUI while transporting a child

A state social worker has twice been charged with driving under the influence of drugs -- once while transporting a child for a family court hearing.

Justin Prater was arrested in Knott County on April 7, when he arrived with the child after driving 115 miles from Greenup County to Knott County.

Eight days before that arrest, Prater was ticketed by police in Boyd County for careless driving. He paid a fine.

The case reveals an inequity in the child-protection system, one of the state's leading child advocates says.

Families seeking to regain custody of children are typically subjected to drug screens, and any new charges against them can cause social workers to recommend that visitation be revoked.

But criminal background checks are not routinely updated on state social workers after they are hired, and they are not subjected to drug screenings, Anya Weber, spokeswoman for the Cabinet for Health and Family Services wrote in an e-mail.

"This is clearly a gap in the safety net," said Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates. "The safeguards applied to families should be applied to social workers. What's good for the goose is good for the gander."

Wrong county

On April 7, Prater first took the child to the wrong place -- Perry County -- where officials thought he "appeared to be under the influence," according to arrest records.

Perry County officials notified Knott County, the citation said, and when Prater arrived exhibiting the same behavior, Knott County officials arrested him.

Prater, 34, a social worker assigned to Greenup County, was put on paid leave by officials of the Cabinet for Health and Family Services the day after his arrest. He is scheduled to appear in Knott District Court on Tuesday.

Prater did not return telephone calls requesting comment.

On April 18, Ashland police stopped his vehicle and charged him with driving while under the influence of drugs, third-degree possession of a controlled substance, first-degree possession of drug paraphernalia and speeding 26 miles over the limit. He is scheduled to appear in Boyd District Court on May 23.

Background checks

Cabinet officials did not know about the March 31 careless-driving charge when Prater was allowed to drive the child April 7, Weber said.

Criminal background checks are conducted when social workers are hired; the records are updated only when a social worker is being considered for reclassification or promotion, Weber wrote.

"We take appropriate disciplinary steps when we believe clients may be at risk," she wrote.

In Kentucky, state social workers drive children to foster homes and sometimes to visits with their families, as well as to court and medical appointments.

In the April 7 case, Prater also is charged with endangering the welfare of a minor.

Records from the arrests in Knott and Boyd counties say that Prater performed poorly on sobriety tests. He refused to provide blood or urine tests in the Boyd County case, according to court records. In the Knott County case, he was not asked to provide blood and told police he could not urinate when he was asked to submit to a test.

Weaving in traffic

In the March 31 incident, Prater was ticketed for weaving in and out of traffic and traveling 60 mph in a 35 mph zone. He paid a $20 fine and $138 in court costs.

The cabinet is in the final stages of determining disciplinary action for Prater, officials say. Weber said that Prater has not been disciplined previously on any drug- or alcohol-related issues.

Brooks, the child advocate, said the case "is a warning signal to the cabinet. I hope they will respond in a positive way."

Cabinet officials would not say whether any policies regarding social workers driving children would be changed as a result of the arrests.

"We are continually evaluating our policy," Weber said.

Original Article-

State social worker charged with DUI while transporting a child

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