The child protection system in Kansas is due for a top-to-bottom examination.
The number of children under state care is at an all-time high, creating a shortage of qualified foster homes. Child advocates worry about high turnover among caseworkers. Law enforcement groups say a state-operated hotline to deal quickly with situations involving at-risk children isn’t always answered, and caseworkers and supervisors are often hard to reach.
Those factors alone should prompt scrutiny. And, in fact, some lawmakers have called for a closer look at Kansas’ child protection structure, which starts with a state-run agency, and then hands off responsibilities to two private contractors and a network of subcontractors.
Concerns about the system were further heightened this week as questions emerged about whether state child protection workers had been in contact with the family of a 7-year-old boy who has been missing for some time in Wyandotte County. Human remains, as yet unidentified, have been found in a barn near where the family lives. The boy’s father, James Jones, is in custody on child abuse, assault and battery charges.
Wyandotte County District Attorney Jerome A. Gorman told reporters that the family had previous contact with child-welfare agencies in Kansas and possibly other states, but he did not know the details.
In a different case, the mother of a 4-year-old Hiawatha, Kan., boy who was killed by his father in 2013 is suing the Department for Children and Families and TFI Family Services, the private company that placed the child with his father. The lawsuit alleges that workers should have known the child would be in danger.
And The Wichita Eagle has reported extensively on a Sedgwick County girl who at age 14 was described by a doctor as having been a victim of child torture. The Department for Children and Families had received eight calls about the girl’s welfare in a little more than five years before a ninth call finally got her removed from her home, the newspaper reported.
Most state child welfare agencies are reluctant to open up their actions and data to public view. The Kansas system, which is partly privatized, is more difficult to penetrate than most.
State employees from the Department for Children and Families investigate reports of suspected abuse and neglect. If a child is determined to be at risk, the case is turned over to one of two private contractors, KVC Behavioral Healthcare of Olathe and St. Francis Community Services of Salina. Those agencies recruit and train foster families and supervise placements. They subcontract some of their cases to other agencies.
At a recent legislative hearing, officials with the Department for Children and Families reportedly were unable to answer questions from legislators as basic as the optimal number of cases that a worker should handle and the case-to-worker ratio at the private agencies.
In July, a legislative committee voted down a request for a comprehensive audit of the foster care system. But some kind of review is badly needed. A state shouldn’t wait for a tragedy to examine its child protection system, and Kansas already has waited too long.