New Kansas foster care law codifies rights to safety, security, support

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TOPEKA — A new law that went into effect Saturday requires better communication from foster care entities to foster parents and children regarding their rights of safety, security and support.

The Legislature passed the foster care bill of rights in May after dozens of lawmakers and people with experience in the child welfare system spoke up for a need for change. While the law requires children and foster parents to be told their rights, major entities involved in the Kansas foster care system say the law may not remedy issues that forced its passing.

Laura Howard, Kansas Department for Children and Families secretary, said she doesn’t know that the law changes much — but a law does hold more weight than an agency policy.

“I think it made clear a number of things that we already had in policy,” Howard said. “We, for example, already had a bill of rights in our policy, but I think by putting it in the law, the level of expectation that that gets communicated to people, that they know what their rights are, I think it’s just far more likely that that becomes kind of a real living part of how the system operates.”

The foster care bill of rights, named in memorial for former Rep. Gail Finney, lists foster children’s rights to safe placement, respect, a place to store personal belongings and have access to healthy food, attend school daily, life-skill training and access to attorneys.

The law also lists rights for foster parents, including being treated by the Department for Children and Families and other agencies with respect and trust, access to training, timely financial reimbursement, advanced notification of court hearings, and continued communication with children if they leave.

Mike Fonkert, deputy director of Kansas Appleseed, said it remains to be seen how the law will affect foster kids, as sometimes policies aren’t followed the way they should be. Kansas Appleseed was part of a group that went to federal court against the state on behalf of foster children in Kansas in 2018. A $2.3 million settlement was reached in 2021, and the federal court maintains oversight to ensure progress is made in the state foster care system.

“Without serious action from the people involved in the system, this is very much a symbolic change to our foster system,” Fonkert said. “And if we want to continue to honor Rep. Finney, we will dig in and continue to do the hard work of changing our foster care system and better serving kids and families.”

Finney, a Democrat from Wichita who fought for improvements in the foster care system, helped write a version of the bill before she died in 2022.

Howard said DCF is implementing the law by making sure foster parents and children know what their rights are, and that state contractors respect those rights. One way DCF is doing this is listing the rights on its website, Howard said.

DCF originally published a version of the foster parent bill of rights that eliminated language from the bill about DCF having a responsibility to treat foster parents with respect. When questioned by Kansas Reflector about the changes, a spokesman said it was a copy and paste error. The mistake has since been fixed.

Amy Engel-Hudson, vice president of foster care houses for Saint Francis Ministries, said the law is mainly a “formalized outline” of information that is already given to parents and carried out as best practice.

She said as things that go right in the system are replicated, the system will continue to improve.

“I think there’s always going to be struggles in the system just because you’re dealing with a lot of hurt,” Engel-Hudson said. “And what I don’t think we focus enough time on is all the things that are working well, all the times that you see foster families, the biological families, connect and build a partnership and are able to support that birth family for the kids to move home.”

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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