Requirements to work in Kansas’ foster care system are too high, the agency in charge said Friday after a new audit found the state’s foster care contractors have difficulty employing enough workers.
Phyllis Gilmore, secretary of the Department for Children and Families, called the state’s requirements “overly restrictive (and) out of step with national trends.” She called on lawmakers to review the requirements.
Kansas requires foster care workers to be licensed social workers, and they must hold a bachelor’s degree in social work. Gilmore said nearly every other state does not require licensure, and that a handful of states do not require social workers to have social work degrees, but instead degrees in related fields, such as psychology.
“We believe we can further recruitment in Kansas by loosening restrictions,” Gilmore said.
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A report from Post Audit, the auditing arm of the Legislature, found that the contractors that provide foster care services in the state’s privatized system often asked case supervisors to take on large caseloads because of staff vacancies, though DCF recommends supervisors should not carry cases.
A Post Audit analysis showed that supervisors and experienced case managers generally carried the largest caseloads.
“Staff told us these vacancies can last for up to six months in the rural regions of the state, which sometimes causes supervisors to hold large caseloads for long periods,” the report says.
Nearly half of the family support staff surveyed by auditors lacked sufficient experience. The state’s contracts for foster care require at least two years of experience in the children and family services field.
Rep. Linda Gallagher, a Lenexa Republican, said she didn’t realize the requirements in Kansas were stricter than most other states.
“I’d be willing to look at that and see if that is something that would help the problem of lack of case managers, lack of people applying for that position,” Gallagher said. “But I wouldn’t want to do anything that would endanger the welfare of the children.”
Rep. Don Schroeder, a Hesston Republican, said he is open to expanding the types of degrees that social workers can hold, but he didn’t want to remove a requirement for a degree.
“I don’t know it’s necessary to lower the standards, so to speak,” Schroeder said.
More generally, the audit found that Kansas’ performance on federal outcome measures for foster care did not change significantly between 2000 and 2013. The state slightly improved its performance on some measures related to reducing time spent by children in foster care and increasing stability of their placements.
Measures of abused and neglect were relatively constant, the audit found, while performance related to improving the permanency of children’s placements declined.
“When compared to other states, Kansas has one of the safest child welfare systems in the country,” Gilmore said.
The audit cautioned the measures have significant limitations and that federal officials have said the state’s performance should not be compared to other states because there are no consistent national standards.
Sen. Julia Lynn, an Olathe Republican, said she came away from the audit feeling very encouraged.
“It just appears that every time we have a DCF audit, there is a tone that is accusatory to the agency,” Lynn said. “Like no other agency I’ve seen and I saw that as kind of lessening a little bit today... it’s probably because, more than likely, we’re getting results out of these audits.”
The audit released Friday was the last in a three-part series of the foster care system over the past year. An audit last summer concluded the Kansas DCF failed to conduct background checks on foster families, some foster homes had inadequate sleeping space for children, and monthly in-person visits to foster homes did not always take place.
Since then, DCF has rolled out a number of changes, including annual background checks and requiring child placing agencies to assess the safety of homes during visits.
The agency has promised other changes in the future, including the promise that all annual inspections of foster care homes will be done by DCF staff by this summer. Previously, they were done by the contractors, which some contended posed a conflict of interest.
Rep. Jarrod Ousley, a Merriam Democrat who called for Gilmore’s resignation after an earlier audit, said he felt like “a lot hasn’t changed.”
“It sounds like there’s still a lot of change on the horizon and not a whole lot’s been implemented,” he said. “There’s just still a whole lot of plans to do this. I’m frustrated with that.”
Ousley said he knew people couldn’t just snap their fingers and fix it overnight, but he said there’s still room for more improvement when it comes to how the state handles foster care.
“It’s been prodded now long enough that we should see some results, not some plans,” he said.