Kansas Bureau of Investigation agents found the two siblings in a dilapidated home with exposed wiring and no running water. On that cold and snowy day last year, they were using the oven for heat.
Their mother wasn’t home, but another adult was there, using drugs. Authorities found methamphetamine and other drugs and paraphernalia.
“The youngest one explained to us how the older one would put yellow gloves on to remove waste from the toilet every night and take it outside,” said Doug Younger, a KBI special agent. “... That life is not a life kids need to be a part of.”
Unfortunately, too many children in Kansas are being thrust into the world of drugs. The state has an all-time high number of kids in foster care, and children’s advocates point to parents’ rising use of meth and heroin as a factor.
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“It does seem like there are more children, infants or young children, who come in where one or both of the parents are addicted to drugs,” said Lois Rice, executive director of CASA of Johnson and Wyandotte Counties.
So many children are in foster care that the state’s contractor in the Kansas City area — KVC Health Systems — has hired more staff and ramped up recruitment for foster families. CASA is working to train more volunteers and offering training sessions more often during the year. Kansas’ Department for Children and Families is assessing what type of foster placements are needed, and in which counties, to help the children going into state care.
Heartland Community Church in Olathe held two events in October to inform its members about the foster care needs and explain how they can make a difference in a child’s life. At the end of the talk, members stuffed toiletries and blankets into duffel bags to give to children as they enter care.
“It’s just heart-wrenching,” said Kelly Patterson, a foster mother in Johnson County who attends Heartland. As a foster parent, she said, she sees a list everyday of 70 to 80 foster kids who are in emergency housing or away from siblings and need a more stable home.
6,517Kansas children in foster care, up from
5,719two years before
“There’s just something about the disadvantaged kids that is my passion,” said Patterson, who with husband Rick cares for five foster children on top of their four children, two of whom still live in the home. “If they can find someone that looks like a mom to them, just that little glimpse of a mom, that makes all the difference to them.”
In fiscal 2015, Kansas had 6,517 children in foster care, up from 6,167 in 2014 and 5,719 in 2013. Year-end totals have increased each of the past five years.
Some children are staying in foster care longer because an agency is working to reunite the child with one or both parents, and that takes time.
“Especially when you have families engaged in overcoming addiction,” said Sharri Black, deputy director for prevention and protection services for the Kansas Department for Children and Families. “You can’t just flip a switch and make those changes. Sometimes that takes time.”
Caught in drug web
In January, a Leavenworth County woman was sentenced to 16 years in prison for selling drugs, including methamphetamine, out of the home where she lived with her toddler son. Investigators found meth stashed in her boy’s toy police car.
In April, Lenexa police took two girls, ages 6 and 7, into protective custody after officers serving a search warrant found a cache of drugs and weapons inside the home where they were living. Authorities said adults were selling meth, cocaine and marijuana out of the home. The officers seized 11 handguns and 11 rifles.
“Drugs bring other crimes with them in many cases,” said Officer Dan Friesen, spokesman for the Lenexa Police Department. “And because drug houses are sometimes targeted for violence, the fact they had drug transactions happening when kids are in the homes, that’s a concern.”
Sometimes, when authorities bust a drug house where kids live, the state has already taken custody of the children. They’ve been spared any more time in dangerous situations where shady people are in and out constantly.
KBI figures show the total number of meth cases reported to the agency has increased each year for the past three. In 2012, Kansas had 4,626 meth cases; in 2014, that number rose to 5,352.
Authorities used to worry about children being harmed when parents make meth. The cooking process includes toxic chemicals that can easily explode. Now, after stringent legislation cracked down on possession of the ingredients and manufacturing the drug, many law enforcement agencies in Kansas and across the Midwest aren’t seeing as many mom-and-pop labs.
5,352meth cases in Kansas in 2014, up from
4,626two years before
Last year, agencies reporting to the KBI showed just 51 manufacturing cases, exactly half the number in 2012.
Much of the methamphetamine today comes from Mexico, and the purity can be as high as 95 to 100 percent, authorities say. Small labs in Kansas were pumping out the drug with purity levels as low as 30 percent.
Even though the risks from labs aren’t as great, there are still major worries for kids, said Mark Malick of the KBI.
“You still have a lot of the same dangers with parents being under the influence, or leaving kids unattended when they leave to purchase the drug,” Malick said. Plus, “the addiction didn’t change at all. Just the means of getting it.”
Parents suffering addiction can be a danger, officers say.
“Their problem-solving skills are compromised,” Friesen said. “Their decision making can be affected and that affects the kids.”
Authorities are also seeing more violence associated with methamphetamine.
“Everyone has a gun now,” Younger said. “When we deal with these folks, the violence level has increased dramatically.”
And it’s happening inside good families.
“I’ve seen people that have good careers, and they will flush that away because of meth,” Younger said. “And you just shake your head.”
Teenage foster children are hard to place. So are sibling groups of three or more.
And if a town doesn’t have homes equipped for certain foster children, or potential foster parents don’t have the right training, kids can be placed far away from their schools and parents.
Some foster children are in homes as far as 200 to 250 miles away. That can be difficult when it comes to scheduling visits and family therapy.
“We’re wanting to increase our number of foster parents in every county,” said Julie Burdick of KVC Health Systems. “Being removed from home is a traumatic event and we want to make sure there are foster parents in all of those counties so kids don’t have to move somewhere they’ve never been.”
Workers with KVC have an ongoing recruitment campaign that includes social media and talking with groups in the community. In some cases, workers have gone into schools and talked with children’s counselors and coaches to see whether they could provide a temporary home.
This past summer, officials with the state child welfare division met with providers across Kansas to discuss what types of foster families are needed — and where — to meet the needs of children coming into care. That conversation continues, said Black of the Department for Children and Families.
“A lot of children in care have trauma issues,” she said. “They have intense needs. ... We need foster families that can provide for those needs.”
A lot of children in care have trauma issues. They have intense needs. ... We need foster families that can provide for those needs.
Sharri Black, Kansas Department for Children and Families
Kristle Davis spoke to members of Olathe’s Heartland congregation recently as a former foster child who now is a foster mother living in Iowa.
But she’s aware of the rising number of kids in Kansas foster care and across the nation. And she wants families to know that if they can’t house a foster child, there’s much more they can do.
Clothes are always needed for foster children, she said. So is respite care, which allows foster parents to have an hour off, or even a night away. Maybe even a prepared meal for a family who just received a new foster child.
“There are different ways we can wrap our arms around the foster care community,” Davis said.
Too often, all children have when they enter foster care is a plastic bag with a change of clothes. They already feel alone, and being separated from their belongings just makes things worse.
That’s why more than 100 women turned out recently for Heartland’s duffel bag-stuffing event. Helping provide something felt good, said Ruth Chan of Olathe as she stood at the end of the assembly line.
“It’s one of those things we don’t think about,” Chan said. “You’re pulled from a home and put in a whole new place. Any items we can provide is the least we can do.”
Giving them a bag of their own with a few things packed inside, instead of just having a trash bag, sends a message, Davis said.
As a child, “you can hold your chin up a little higher,” she said. “No longer are you being told you’re trash, garbage, you are throwaways.”