Government & Politics

A champion of children, Gov. Kelly faces heat to fix Kansas system as lawsuit looms

Sen. Laura Kelly says ‘there is no transparency’ in DCF after Star investigation

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly, when she was a state senator, asked Department for Children and Families staff about shredding of notes from meetings but got no answer during a meeting of the Child Welfare Systems Task Force in Topeka.
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Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly, when she was a state senator, asked Department for Children and Families staff about shredding of notes from meetings but got no answer during a meeting of the Child Welfare Systems Task Force in Topeka.

Gov. Laura Kelly has fought for years to help fix Kansas’ troubled foster care system, where kids have gone missing and slept in offices because there were no beds.

Now that she’s leading the state, the former senator faces pressure to turn around the system that serves the state’s most vulnerable children. She will soon find herself as the lead defendant in an ongoing class action lawsuit that alleges the state of Kansas has treated some children so poorly that they’ve suffered mentally or run away from foster homes.

“When we filed this case, it was in no way about Laura Kelly,” said Lori Burns-Bucklew, a Kansas City attorney and accredited child welfare law specialist. Burns-Bucklew joined Kansas Appleseed, the National Center for Youth Law, and Children’s Rights in filing the suit.

“She has fought for kids. She knows what the issues are. And she has made it very clear, she said it would be a top priority for her to straighten out the foster care issues. We are looking forward to seeing what happens.”

The suit, filed in mid-November, named Gov. Jeff Colyer as the lead defendant. But now that Kelly’s been sworn in, Colyer’s name soon will come off and Kelly’s name will go on, according to a motion filed in the federal case.

Another defendant will be Laura Howard, who Kelly has appointed as the interim secretary for the Department for Children and Families. Howard will take over for Gina Meier-Hummel, who also had been named in the lawsuit. The new interim leaders of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment and the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services will also become defendants.

Ten children in state care are represented in the class action suit. They include 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.

In some cases, according to the suit, foster children in Kansas have been trafficked for sex, sexually abused inside adoptive homes or in one instance reportedly raped inside a child welfare office.

What’s going on in Kansas is a “multi-sector crisis” and will require several agencies and leaders coming together to find solutions, said Ira Lustbader, litigation director for Children’s Rights, a nonprofit national advocacy group focused on reforming child welfare systems.

“We’re open as a team to sitting down with the new administration and seeing what can be done to get these changes in place,” Lustbader said. “Given how dysfunctionally run the system has been for so many years there is no question that new, fresh leadership is desperately needed.”

The goal of the litigation isn’t to receive money, but to fix the system for the children described in the suit and others that come after them, attorneys who filed the suit say.

The suit asks, among other things, that children no longer be put in short-term and night-to-night placements, and that they begin receiving initial trauma-related screening. It also is requesting that the defendants create and implement trauma-informed practices to help children heal, as well as ensure children have access to the mental health treatment they need.

“In terms of placement and lack of mental health options, I really haven’t seen any place worse,” said Leecia Welch, senior director of legal advocacy for the National Center for Youth Law. “It’s beyond the house is on fire. ... Once we filed the complaint, we have been overwhelmed on people who have reached out telling additional horror stories.”

The DCF administration under Colyer has said the system drastically improved in the past year. In mid-November, Meier-Hummel said that under her leadership the percentage of vacant positions dropped from 20.7 to 8. The number of missing runaways dropped and staff worked to keep more children with their families.

But many child advocates and lawmakers insist much more needs to be done.

In the past two years, Kelly has been a vocal member of the legislative task force formed to come up with ways to improve the child welfare system. The system has been under scrutiny for several years and has weathered bad headlines about child deaths, mismanagement inside the agency and a lack of beds and foster homes for the growing number of kids in care.

Advocates and lawmakers agree that more money will be needed to help get the system back on track. And that Kelly is best positioned to know what the problems are and will work to find answers.

“She’s having to fix all those years of Brownback and Brownbackian neglect,” Burns-Bucklew said, referring to former Gov. Sam Brownback. “The system has been starved of resources, starved for vision.”

Lawmakers learned more than a year ago 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. Others were going from placement to placement.

“The harms the state itself is inflicting are shocking,” Lustbader said. “It’s like the state of Kansas itself is guilty of child abuse and neglect.”

The Star reported in September that a 13-year-old girl in state custody said she was raped inside an Olathe child welfare office. She told a worker with KVC, which currently has the foster care contract in the Kansas City area, that another teen in foster care assaulted her when the worker left the room.

“The extreme housing situation is causing lasting emotional harm for the children who are experiencing it,” Welch said.

It’s obvious, Welch said, that Kelly “inherited a very broken system.”

“She now has the opportunity to be part of the solution,” Welch said. “We are motivated to fix the system, to address the crisis. If the administration is similarly motivated, I think it’s a very positive development.”

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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.