Shortly after Gov. Sam Brownback took office in 2011, there were almost 5,200 children in Kansas’ foster care system. Today, there are more than 6,900.
The prospect of adding 1,700 kids to a system that was already stretched thin was beyond most policymakers’ imagination six years ago.
Kansas had privatized most of its child-protection responsibilities in the late ’90s after its welfare department failed several court-ordered reviews. Between 1997 and 2012, the number of children in the system — all of them abused, neglected or beyond their parents’ control — bounced between 4,800 and 5,700. In 2012, Brownback’s first full year in the governor’s office, that number began an inexorable climb.
Now the total of so-called out-of-home placements is the highest in the state’s history.
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Child protection workers will tell you — privately, of course — they don’t expect the number to fall anytime soon because the state’s child protection system, they say, is vastly underfunded.
The number of available foster homes hasn’t kept pace with the number of kids coming into the system. Children are staying in the system longer, and staff turnover is through the roof. It’s not unusual for high-needs children to sit in a contractor’s office for a day or two or even three because there’s nowhere else for them to go, and “disruptions” — that’s when frazzled foster parents tell the state’s foster care contractors to come get their kids — are increasingly troublesome.
This is indefensible. Abused and neglected children don’t fare well without first being able to feel safe, stable, attached, protected and valued. This doesn’t happen when they are put in a stranger’s home that’s hours away from family, friends and schoolmates; are assigned a new caseworker every two or three months; and never know if they’re coming or going.
Recent legislative audits have found that the Department for Children and Families has a lousy track record when it comes to looking out for the kids in its care.
Phyllis Gilmore, the chief of the department, has been quick to assure the public that Kansas has one of the safest child welfare systems in the country. She’s right; very few children die while they’re in the state’s care.
But she hasn’t explained why record numbers of children are being removed from their parents’ care.
The methamphetamine and opioid epidemics, certainly, are factors. But parental drug abuse isn’t new. What’s different is that over the past six years, the department has cut low-income parents’ access to food stamps, cash assistance and child care assistance. At the same time, state spending on mental health services has been slashed, residential programs for the state’s most seriously disturbed children are saddled with long waiting lists, and funding for substance abuse programs has been, at best, flat.
The safety net that once kept a fair number of kids out of the system is now a sieve.
Legislators this year have done little to address the system’s shortcomings. The House Committee on Children and Seniors got behind a bill to set up an 18-member task force that would put together an improvement plan that, in turn, would be backed by annual progress reports. The department testified against the bill, saying it’s supervised enough already.
Many of the state’s child advocates worry that such a plan would end up gathering dust on the shelf with all the other reports that never seem to generate much change. It’s the Legislature’s job to make sure this doesn’t happen.
The Legislature should pass House Substitute for SB 126, and the governor should sign it.
Dave Ranney is a retired Statehouse reporter who covered social services. He lives in Lawrence.