Kansas continues to break legal promise to children in foster care system, report shows

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TOPEKA — An independent evaluation of the Kansas foster care system showed the state, for a second year in a row, failed to make progress in several key areas, and had even more children sleeping in offices than the previous year.

The report released Monday by the Center for the Study of Social Policy found 85 foster children had spent 257 nights in offices in 2022.

The report, the second of its kind, examines all of the foster care system data available for the 2022 calendar year. The first evaluation of the Kansas foster care system, released in September 2022, found that 53 foster children slept in offices 167 times in 2021, including one child who slept in an office for 54 nights.

Advocates for foster kids said the state continues to fail some of its most vulnerable children.

“It is hard to understand how the state of Kansas can continue to be so negligent in its provision of mental health services to these youth who are in the foster system,” said Lori Burns-Bucklew, child welfare law specialist. “Kansas is a poor parent indeed for these young folks who are struggling after having been removed from their homes and families.”

The state also failed to cut down on moves for youths in the system. In 2021, the children on average moved 5.84 times per 1,000 days in care. In 2022, the average was six moves per 1,000 days in care.

The state had a slight overall improvement in end-of-year placements, with 91% of children and youths in a stable placement by the end of 2022. The stable placement change marked an improvement of six percentage points from the previous year.

Department of Children and Families secretary Laura Howard pointed to the increased stability as a win for the state, along with newly implemented programs, such as a new mobile crisis service for foster kids.

“The report affirms our commitment to the continuous improvement of the Kansas child welfare system,” Howard said.

But advocates say the system needs significant reform.

“Foster children — especially those who are stuck in offices and night-to-night placements for extended periods — are losing their childhoods to this system,” said Leecia Welch, deputy legal director at Children’s Rights. “There must be greater accountability for the private contractors, more funding for community-based mental health services, and more robust support for families so that children can stay safely at home.”

The yearly assessment is a condition of the state’s settlement of a class action federal lawsuit with Kansas Appleseed and other entities. In 2018, Kansas Appleseed sued the state over systemic failures in the foster care system, citing concerns of extreme instability and scarce mental health resources.

The lawsuit was settled in January 2021, with the state agreeing to work toward system improvements and undergo yearly assessments to determine the state’s progress. The D.C.-based nonprofit Center for the Study of Social Policy was chosen as the state’s accessor. 

Part of the settlement required the state to make structural changes, such as ending one-night placements and the practice of housing children in offices or other inappropriate settings, and improving mental health resources.

While the state has made some improvements in mental health resources for foster care youth, these improvements fall short of the state’s target goals.

In 2022, DCF properly assessed 43% of youths entering the system for trauma and mental health needs in the mandated timeframe — 30 days after entering the system, marking a nine-point increase from the previous year.

In 70% of cases, these needs were addressed, marking a five-point uptick from 2021, but falling short of the target goal for 2022, which was for the state to have 80% of mental health needs addressed.

Another area of concern is Kansas’ lack of a statewide data system for child welfare information. Instead of a consolidated system, the state  has case files and state data scattered over several different systems, making information more difficult to review.

Freya Pitts, senior attorney for the National Center for Youth Law, said the report highlighted the need for an integrated data system.

“Without reliable and consistent data tracking, DCF can’t evaluate whether its initiatives are working and can’t hold its private contractors accountable for serving children and their families across the state,” Pitts said.

Gov. Laura Kelly said her administration had made strides toward improving foster care conditions, especially in terms of stable placements and mental health needs, but would work on reducing temporary placements.

“This report also makes clear that, in spite of all of our efforts, there’s much more work to be done,” Kelly said. “I am encouraged by the steps we’ve taken in 2023 to decrease temporary overnight placements and instances of kids staying in offices, but clearly the Legislature and I must dig deeper, make more targeted investments, and come up with solutions that work.”

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: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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