Government & Politics

‘Thousands of kids every day are being failed.’ Coalition demands change in Kansas

Kansas must fix a troubled, under-funded child welfare system now or more vulnerable children across the state will suffer.

That’s the message from members of a coalition that released a report Thursday detailing woes inside the state’s child welfare system — from racial disparities in the children being removed from their homes to kids lingering in state custody too long. The coalition, Strengthen Families Rebuild Hope, spent the past year hosting town hall meetings and identifying what has gone wrong in Kansas and why.

Now, the coalition hopes child welfare leaders and legislators — as well as average citizens across the state — take notice of the problems and solutions proposed in the report.

“The problems are staring us in the face every day,” said Quinn Ried, policy research analyst with Kansas Appleseed, a nonprofit justice center that is a leading member of the coalition. “Thousands of kids every day are being failed by the system designed to protect them.”

What’s especially frustrating, Ried said, is that trouble inside the Kansas system has been written and talked about for several years “but the problem continues to get worse as it’s being ignored.”

High-profile child tragedies, including the 2015 death of a Kansas City, Kan., boy who was starved to death and his body later fed to pigs, have identified shortcomings in child welfare services. And a recent top-to-bottom review of the Kansas Department for Children and Families exposed high caseloads, alarming turnover and a lack of timely training.

At the same time, a record number of Kansas children have been in foster care.

“We can’t go into another year without having solid answers and resolutions to some of these problems,” said Tara Wallace, president of the African American Foster Care/Adoption Coalition’s Topeka chapter. “We can’t afford for it to be too late again for our kids. They are more than a number, and a report that’s going to be filed away in somebody’s cabinet — we owe them so much better than this.”

One way to solve some of the issues facing families, the coalition said, is for the state to improve funding for programs like food stamp benefits and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. In the past four years, money from those programs has decreased significantly in Kansas and families have suffered, the report said.

In July 2014, there were 18,677 children in Kansas served by TANF. In July 2018, that number decreased by more than 60 percent to 7,410. And nearly 143,000 children received food assistance benefits in 2014. Four years later, that number had dropped to 100,578.

“To reduce instances of child maltreatment, Kansas must address the large gaps in the social safety net,” Thursday’s report said. “... It seems unlikely that these reductions are not contributing to the foster care crisis.”

Other solutions include increasing money and focus on family preservation to keep more children in their homes and addressing the racial disparity in the child welfare system. The reports also says the state must address the high number of placements some children experience, a lack of system oversight and the need for more worker training, retention and lower caseloads.

“As we get more (children into foster care) and less are finding permanency, the caseloads are higher,” said Becky Fast, executive director of the Kansas Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers. “It’s a revolving door. You never catch up.”

Members of the Strengthen Families Rebuild Hope coalition include former foster youth, social workers, advocacy groups and child welfare leaders and experts. The group formed in January to help advocate for reform. The purpose of the report, Ried said, is for people of Kansas “to understand the problem that has been hiding in plain sight for awhile now.”

At the end of last month, there were 7,505 Kansas children in out-of-home placements, up from 2,479 from December 2011. In those seven years, the numbers of kids in placement has increased an average of 7 percent each year, Thursday’s report shows.

A class action lawsuit, filed last month in federal court, alleges that Kansas children have been treated so poorly that they’ve suffered mentally and sometimes resorted to running away from foster homes. In other cases, they have been trafficked for sex, sexually abused inside adoptive homes or in one instance reportedly raped inside a child welfare office, the suit alleges.

Kansas Appleseed, local advocates and two national children’s rights organizations brought the suit against Gov. Jeff Colyer and Gina Meier-Hummel, secretary of the state’s child welfare system, as well as officials of two other agencies.

Ten children in state care are represented in the lawsuit, including two brothers who have been moved from placement to placement at least 15 times since March and a 10-year-old who spent three months earlier this year in a string of night-to-night placements during which he never knew where he would be sleeping.

According to the coalition’s report, children in Kansas are experiencing a great number of moves while in custody. In October of this year, a child in Kansas foster care was moved from one placement to another an average of 9.9 times per 1,000 days. That’s more than two times the performance standard, which is 4.12 times per 1,000 days.

“Many children experience excessive numbers of moves, oftentimes even being moved to a new placement every night,” the coalition’s report stated. “It is impossible for children to thrive when they face such dangerous instability.”

When children are moved from place to place, they often end up in different schools.

Some coalition members have hope that change will finally come in Kansas. In January, Gov.-elect Laura Kelly takes over. She’s been a member of the legislative task force looking at ways to improve child welfare.

Kelly listened in the task force meetings, Wallace said. And followed up with people who testified, to make sure she knew what the problems were and what solutions were needed.

“We have the governor elect’s voice, we have her ear,” Wallace said. “The knowledge she received participating in the task force is something I wish many people could experience.

“The answers are simple. We know what they are. And the recommendations in that report are so in line and on point with what needs to happen to make the situation better for children and families.”

Laura Bauer came to The Star in 2005 after spending much of her life in southwest Missouri. She’s a member of the investigative team focusing on watchdog journalism. In her 25-year career, Laura’s stories on child welfare, human trafficking, crime and Kansas secrecy have been nationally recognized.