Government & Politics

Kansas steps up scrutiny of foster care contractor keeping kids in offices overnight

Kansas' child welfare agency says it is keeping a close watch on a contractor in the Kansas City area that has kept kids in offices overnight because of a shortage of foster care beds.

The Kansas Department for Children and Families said in an email Wednesday that the agency has heard multiple concerns that led to the added oversight of KVC Health Systems. The agency said it could not detail what those concerns were.

Officials said the state agency is aware of the difficulty the state's two contractors have in placing kids with extreme needs, "and we continue to work with them to minimize the time youth spend in offices."

"Recently, Secretary Gina Meier-Hummel directed DCF staff to conduct walk-throughs of KVC offices in order to ensure children in the custody of the Secretary are safe and meeting the needs of the children," the state agency said in a statement. "DCF continues to partner with its providers to address the need for safe placements for children."

Jenny Kutz, a spokeswoman for KVC, said the contractor is working to place children in foster homes and other placements rather than keeping them overnight in offices. No children have been kept in KVC offices since May 18, Kutz said.

"Our goal is to work with our partner, the Kansas Department for Children and Families, to safely reduce the number of children in foster care by strengthening families," Kutz said. "We appreciate DCF’s partnership in meeting youth’s needs and minimizing their time in offices."

If children do need to stay in offices because no other placement is available, KVC officials are working to make sure they are in a "safe, caring environment," Kutz said in an email.

To ensure that, KVC has hired more youth care specialists, added security officers at certain locations and extended the hours of some officers.

Officials have also created a schedule for children so there's a structure for staff and kids, and three meals a day are brought in. Some foster parents have also brought in home-cooked meals for children who are kept overnight in offices.

DCF staffers have visited six of the 12 KVC offices, some of them multiple times. The walk-throughs, which started last week, have occurred in offices in Topeka and several counties, including Wyandotte, Johnson and Douglas.

The visits are not part of an official investigation, a DCF spokeswoman said, adding, "We believe these visits are necessary to ensure our contractors are keeping children safe and are meeting their needs."

"We have received concerns and are taking the necessary steps to increase oversight," DCF spokeswoman Taylor Forrest said.

From Dec. 1 to April 11, 87 children spent at least one night sleeping in child welfare offices run by contractors KVC Health Systems, according to information the child welfare agency provided.

When children are kept overnight in a KVC office, they sleep on a cot or couch and are given basic hygiene items if they don't have them, DCF has said.

Meier-Hummel has said that 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.

Kansas' child welfare system has been under under scrutiny for the past year after the revelations of the lack of beds and children who are missing from foster care. DCF’s past lack of transparency in addressing these and other 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.

Advocates continue to worry about the safety of the state's most vulnerable children and about the scope of the problem.

Sen. Vicki Schmidt, a Topeka Republican who leads the state's child welfare system task force, welcomed the increased oversight from the DCF walk-throughs.

"I don't think that's a bad thing," she said. "These are youth that are in our custody, in our charge. I would hope that they are safe and that everything's being done to find them placements."

DCF plans to visit offices of the state's other contractor, Saint Francis Community, in the future, Forrest said in an email. But the need isn’t immediate.

“We are not hearing the same level of concerns in that portion of the state,” Forrest said.