In late November, Kansas' newly-appointed child welfare leader said foster children spending the night in offices instead of homes or other placements was "unacceptable." But more than four months later, dozens still do.
And although officials insist they have focused time and resources every day to find kids who are missing from foster care, nearly 70 are still unaccounted for in Kansas, according to officials with the Department for Children and Families.
When Gina Meier-Hummel took over the troubled state agency Dec. 1, she assured lawmakers and the public that she and her administration would work with the state's two private contractors to correct these problems. Yet lawmakers and child advocates say that while the new administration is making things better, some kids are still in dire straits across Kansas.
"There's really been no movement in the right direction," said Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, a member of a task force looking at child welfare concerns across the state.
Added Rep. Jarrod Ousley, D-Merriam, another member of that task force:
"Kids don't need to be sleeping in offices. We were supposed to be addressing that."
Gov. Jeff Colyer and Meier-Hummel say they continue to make improvements and announced Friday that the state was creating new foster care contracts for the state's privatized child welfare system.
"The new contracts will be designed to, among other things, streamline services, promote safety and permanency, increase accountability and prioritize keeping families safely together," they said in a news release.
Meier-Hummel is asking for public input on the new contracts. The news release said the two would hold a news conference Monday and take comments from the public from 4 to 5 p.m. Tuesday at the DCF Administration Building, 555 S. Kansas Ave.
Lawmakers learned last fall that because of a shortage of foster homes in some regions and a growing number of kids in care statewide, contractors had resorted to having kids sleep in offices overnight when needed.
After hearing this month that contractors were still struggling to place children, The Star requested updated numbers from DCF. The newspaper also asked for a breakdown of the number of children missing from foster care.
From Dec. 1 to April 11, 137 children spent at least one night sleeping in child welfare offices run by contractors KVC Health Systems and St. Francis Community Services, according to information the child welfare agency provided.
"Wow — that's a lot," said Rep. Linda Gallagher, R-Lenexa, who described the number as "shockingly high" for a four-month period. "I know it's a problem that DCF is supposedly working on, but obviously it's going to take time to find enough foster homes to take kids in the middle of the night or create other places for them to go. But that's a lot of kids sleeping in offices."
Since Meier-Hummel took over in December, 87 children have spent the night in a KVC office and 50 have spent at least one night at a St. Francis office. Earlier this month, at least one child stayed three nights at a St. Francis office.
When children stay overnight with St. Francis, they sleep in the family-friendly visitation rooms or "kidszone" area. Staff is within sight of children while they are in the offices and are awake while children sleep, according to a DCF spokeswoman.
With KVC, children sleep on a cot or couch and are given basic hygiene items if they don't have them. Staff supervises the children and foster parents have brought in meals for the kids, the spokeswoman said.
Meier-Hummel said her administration and staff are in regular contact with contractors to address the issue. Though there is a shortage of homes across the state, there is a great need in about 20 counties, including Leavenworth, Reno, Sedgwick and Wyandotte, officials said.
"We are quickly eliminating identified barriers in the placement process as we go," Meier-Hummel said.
She said that, among other things, her staff is working to approve more placements with family members, expedite reviews of foster homes and make more beds available — "all while ensuring that child safety is not compromised."
The agency 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 missing kids. 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. Some candidates for governor said the findings were disturbing and added a need for transparency to their platforms.
Advocates continue to worry about the safety of the state's most vulnerable children and about the scope of the problem.
"Children sleeping in offices is a very visible indication that the system is in crisis," said Benet Magnuson, executive director of Kansas Appleseed, a nonprofit justice center serving vulnerable and excluded Kansans. "We are dealing with a very broad and deep problem. ... When you look at the crisis that has developed here, it's not a flash-in-the-pan crisis. It’s going to take a sustained, well-resourced effort to turn this around."
Officials with DCF said they were hopeful that the Legislature would approve an increase of more than $16 million in federal and state funds over the next two years. Included in the governor's proposed budget is money to hire a second full-time investigator to locate missing kids. The additional funds would also give the agency resources to address the shortage of emergency placement options.
"In the short time Secretary Meier-Hummel has been at DCF, we have seen a marked change in the culture and trajectory of the agency," said Kendall Marr, Gov. Jeff Colyer's spokesman. "When Gina joined the administration, she and Gov. Colyer had a frank conversation about the necessary financial investment it would take to remedy some of the issues at the agency, including the problem of children sleeping in offices and the need to hire additional staff to help locate children missing from their placements."
Last year, lawmakers began to learn more details about the plight of some children across Kansas.
First, it was the fact that children were sleeping in offices. At the time, contractors said the children who were staying overnight often had psychiatric issues or behaved aggressively. Some had been placed in psychiatric residential treatment facilities multiple times.
Then, in October, lawmakers on the child welfare task force learned that 74 children were missing from foster care, with the majority having run away. Some children are found quickly, within a day or two. Others stay missing for weeks and months.
In early December, days after taking over, Meier-Hummel said she was receiving daily updates on missing kids and her immediate goal was to locate them and make sure they were in a safe home.
As of April 12, 68 children were missing from foster care, according to numbers provided to The Star by DCF.
Officials say during Meier-Hummel's short tenure, the agency has located hundreds of missing kids. From December to mid-April, 343 children have been found, according to DCF.
"We are encouraged by the work," Meier-Hummel said. "We are working daily to find the youth who are away from their placements. We will continue to evaluate our longer-term plan and options to ensure the needs of youth in care are being met."
Lawmakers say they will keep monitoring progress and hope that Meier-Hummel's administration is able to further improve the system for kids.
"I’m sure it’s going to take a long time to right the ship," Ousley said. "I will applaud her for her efforts. ... We have a long ways to go."
Gallagher said she hopes the numbers of kids sleeping in offices and those missing from foster care will go down soon. Overall, she said, she thinks the new secretary is doing good work.
"I just think it takes time to bring about real change in an agency as big as DCF and particularly regarding problems as big as these," Gallagher said. "These aren't problems that can just be solved overnight."