Independent review of Kansas foster care system points to progress and ongoing failures

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TOPEKA — An independent evaluation of the Kansas foster care system shows the state is improving the stability of children in state custody but breaking its promise to end the practice of children sleeping in offices overnight.

The report released Monday by the Center for the Study of Social Policy found that 53 foster children slept in offices 167 times in 2021, including one child who slept in an office for 54 nights. Additionally, case workers for the two largest foster care contractors struggled with heavy caseloads, and only 65% of foster children were able to get the mental health services they needed.

State officials and foster care advocates say the report underscores both the progress made under Gov. Laura Kelly’s administration as well as the severe challenges that remain.

“We do understand that you can’t go from zero to 60 in this kind of a system very quickly,” said Teresa Woody, litigation director for Kansas Appleseed. “So we are happy about the improvements. We recognize that there’s a lot of improvement that has to occur going forward. And that is going to take some investment in the system. It can’t just be done by one branch of the system. I can’t wave a magic wand and make those resources appear.”

The independent assessment of the foster care system is a condition of the state’s settlement of a class action federal lawsuit with Kansas Appleseed and other entities.

Kansas Appleseed sued the state in 2018 over severe instability in the foster care system. Kansas settled the lawsuit in January 2021 by agreeing to show improvements in how the system operates and measurable outcomes. As part of the deal, a third-party monitor will provide yearly updates on whether the state is living up to the agreement.

The Center for the Study of Social Policy is a D.C.-based nonprofit whose mission is to “achieve a racially, economically, and socially just society in which all children and families thrive.” The report released Monday examines the progress made by the state and its contractors during the 2021 calendar year.

“Reforming a child welfare system is a complex and multi-year endeavor,” said Judith Meltzer, president of the Center for the Study of Social Policy. “During this first year, Kansas has made considerable progress in addressing some fundamental problems and has started down a path that we anticipate will lead to further improvements in the years ahead.”

The report shows the state made immediate progress in addressing mental health needs by investing in the federal Family First program, developing specialized foster homes that serve children with serious behavioral needs, investing in certified community behavioral health clinics and launching a statewide mobile crisis hotline.

But only 34% of foster kids received timely mental health and trauma screenings, and only 65% of foster kids received the mental or behavioral health services they need. The first-year target for both metrics under the terms of the settlement was 80%.

The state showed significant improvement on one of the key metrics in determining stability within the foster care system, which is the number of times a child moves from one home to another. When Kelly took office in 2019, the children on average moved 9.7 times per 1,000 days in care. Last year, the rate had improved to 5.84, meeting the target goal of no more than 7 moves per 1,00 days.

However, all four of the state contractors continue to report children sleeping in offices, as well as night-to-night changes in where a child stays — sometimes for days or weeks at a time.

Linda Bass, president of KVC Kansas, addressed the problem of children sleeping in offices during a hearing last week of the Legislature’s child welfare oversight committee. Bass said all of the foster kids who are staying in the office have complex behavioral health needs.

“I don’t have toddlers, school-aged children, children with a single diagnosis in the office,” Bass said. “I have children who are in pain because they they’re dealing with multiple things, oftentimes had behaviors that overwhelm a family and sometimes overwhelm a facility.”

State contracts require caseworkers to maintain a maximum caseload of 25 to 30 children, but available data showed case workers frequently exceed that number. By the end of 2021, 42% of Saint Francis Ministries caseworkers and 24% of KVC Kansas caseworkers were assigned more than 30 children. Saint Francis also had more than 100 children who were not assigned a caseworker.

If the state can fix the “unacceptable” problem of overburdening caseworkers, said Mike Fonkert, a campaign director for Kansas Appleseed, many other problems will be lessened.

“We need providers and the contractors to be honest about what it will truly take to meet the demands of the contracts to care for these kids,” Fonkert said. “We continue to see overloaded caseworkers, consistently.”

Oversight of the foster care system has become a campaign issue in the governor’s race, with Republican nominee Derek Schmidt attacking Kelly for not making more improvements.

“My administration inherited a broken child welfare system that had an unacceptable number of children in care, a lack of placement stability and limited prevention services,” Kelly said in a statement. “Under my administration, we now have 1,300 fewer children in the system, and the neutral report shows we have made substantial progress in making sure kids are in stable placements and experience fewer moves. There’s more work to be done, but this report shows we are headed in the right direction.”

The number of kids in the foster care system declined from 7,600 in 2018 to 6,800 by the end of last year and to 6,200 by June of this year.

C.J. Grover, spokesman for Schmidt’s campaign, said the state has invested millions in the foster care system under Kelly, but “still has kids sleeping in contractor offices” and “has fallen far short of meeting the specific promises the governor made about fixing the system.”

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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