Concerns remain over Kansas foster children staying in offices
A Johnson County teenager has been charged with raping a 13-year-old at an Olathe child welfare office where children have been kept overnight because of a shortage of foster care beds.
Michael Anthony Hamer, 18, was charged last week with rape and aggravated indecent liberties of a child under 14. The incident was reported May 5 at the KVC Behavioral Healthcare office, according to police records obtained by The Star.
News of the sexual assault comes after Kansas lawmakers and child advocates have insisted for months that it isn’t safe to keep children overnight in offices run by the state’s two private child welfare contractors.
Johnson County District Attorney Steve Howe said he couldn’t comment on the sexual assault case. But he said authorities have dealt with many troublesome issues in recent months involving children at that Olathe facility.
“This is not an isolated incident involving criminal conduct at the KVC offices involving children,” Howe said. “Our office and Johnson County law enforcement are extremely frustrated by the situation.”
The youths were at the office that evening awaiting placement in available foster homes or facilities, said Taylor Forrest, a spokeswoman for the Kansas Department for Children and Families, which oversees KVC’s foster care contract with the state. One staff member was supervising the two teens and another youth, Forrest said.
DCF stepped up scrutiny of KVC in mid-May after officials said they had heard concerns, but officials would not say what those concerns were. They also did not disclose at the time that a 13-year-old had reported a sexual assault at one of KVC’s 12 Kansas offices.
“I don’t believe it was anybody’s intention for the public to know that,” said Lori Ross, a child advocate who is pushing for changes in Kansas. “Which again, unfortunately, leads to the idea of public relations being more important than public accountability and child safety.”
Jenny Kutz, a spokeswoman for KVC, said the agency takes “this situation very seriously.”
“Immediately upon learning of the incident, we called law enforcement and then took the victim to the hospital for assessment and services,” Kutz said. “We have continued to follow up appropriately to ensure accountability in this situation and to ensure that proper training and protocol are in place throughout our system at all times.”
DCF initiated a licensing investigation of KVC in May to review the incident, Forrest said in an email answering submitted questions from The Star.
“Child safety is the number one priority for the Kansas Department for Children and Families,” Forrest said. “KVC was cited for regulatory violations, and appropriate action was taken.”
Lawmakers learned last fall that because of a shortage of foster homes and residential beds, contractors had resorted to having kids — many of them with extreme needs and hard to place — sleep in offices overnight when needed.
Lori Burns-Bucklew, a Kansas City attorney and accredited child welfare law specialist, said she has worried for months about the well being of those kids.
“They talked about those kids being difficult to place,” she said. But “you’re not going to improve behavior by putting them in an unstable living place. Nobody deserves that.”
When Gina Meier-Hummel took over the troubled DCF on Dec. 1, she assured lawmakers and the public that she and her administration would work with the state’s two private contractors to correct ongoing problems. Lawmakers and child advocates say that while the new administration has made some things better in specific areas, there is still work to be done to keep kids safe.
A report of a 13-year-old sexually assaulted in a contractor’s office is unacceptable, they said.
“I find it very concerning,” said Sen. Laura Kelly, a member of Kansas’ child welfare task force and a candidate for governor. “Was KVC held accountable? Did any heads roll because of this or is everyone still there?”
Ross said when that type of assault happens in a foster home and an investigation shows there was a lack of supervision, that foster parent would have a finding of neglect on his or her record.
“And they could potentially lose their license,” Ross said. “Foster homes have consequences for that.”
The KVC employee supervising the youth on May 5 is no longer employed with the contractor, Forrest said.
When asked whether the employee was fired, Forrest said: “I’m unable to comment further on personnel matters.”
In early June, The Star asked DCF about the children who had been sleeping in offices, specifically ones run by KVC. Questions surrounded whether those children attended school while they were kept in these facilities and whether any children had been hurt while there.
From Dec. 1 to early June, there were eight critical incidents that “involve a child getting hurt while at KVC offices,” DCF said at the time.
“Some are instances of children getting hurt while running or playing,” an email from DCF said then. “Other incidents involve youth who have escalating emotional and behavior challenges related to the trauma they have experienced and anger with being in foster care.”
The Star then requested police calls for service to the Olathe office on 153rd Street from June 2017 to June 2018. Included in the three pages of calls was one on May 5, classified as a sexual battery. Police said state law prohibited them from releasing the incident report because it involved a Child in Need of Care.
The case number for that call is the same case number listed for charges filed against Hamer last week.
On Monday, Forrest said the incident on May 5 is “the only sexual assault to occur with youth in a KVC office.”
“The police responded to the office, and as soon as they were cleared by police to do so, staff proceeded to take the victim to the Children’s Mercy Hospital,” Forrest said. She did not specify any injuries the victim may have suffered.
DCF has been under scrutiny for the past two years after high-profile deaths of children across Kansas and the revelations of the lack of beds and foster kids who had gone missing. DCF’s past lack of transparency in addressing these issues was a main feature in The Star’s November series on secrecy in Kansas government.
After the series, child welfare advocates and lawmakers demanded change.
As for DCF, more information needs to be shared, Kelly said.
“I thought we had gotten some progress on that, but apparently we still have a long way to go,” Kelly said. “The whole system concerns me. It sounds just like a nightmare. As we peel one layer of the onion off, we just find more things.”
DCF officials will answer any questions the task force may have, Forrest said.
“But it has not been practice to share daily critical incidents with the legislative task force,” she said.
Ross said she has seen improvements in child welfare investigations and in other child welfare areas since Meier-Hummel took over.
But some children are still sleeping in offices, Ross said.
“My biggest question would be, ‘What are the steps we’re taking to make sure we do something differently for these kids?’” Ross said. “There’s been a whole lot of talk about it, but what are we doing?”
“I’d like to hear them apologize,” she said. “I’d like to hear a specific plan about what they are going to do about this.”
Since early May, 46 youths have stayed overnight in a KVC office, according to DCF. But most of those were before Meier-Hummel increased oversight of KVC in mid-May and had her staff visit offices to make sure conditions were safe.
Just five youth since May 18 have stayed overnight in a KVC office, three on Aug. 29 and two on Sept. 1, DCF said.
The state has added 150 residential beds and continues to add more. The state is working to license additional foster homes and is regularly reaching out to contractors to make sure children are safe, Forrest said.
“Stopping the practice of children sleeping in offices continues to be a focus and top priority for Secretary Gina Meier-Hummel,” Forrest said. “While this has essentially stopped, we continue to have conversations with contractors and stakeholders to strengthen our system.”