Government & Politics

‘Nothing being done’: Time running out for Kansas lawmakers on child welfare reforms

Kansas’ new leader of child welfare vows to be transparent as improvements are made

Laura Howard, secretary of Kansas’ Department for Children and Families, has identified ways the troubled state system can improve.
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Laura Howard, secretary of Kansas’ Department for Children and Families, has identified ways the troubled state system can improve.

Child advocates and legislators spent more than a year crafting ways to fix Kansas’ ailing foster care system, but they are growing frustrated that the Legislature has not approved most of their recommendations.

Time is running short — the Legislature returns to Topeka May 1 and could finish up for the year within a few days. That leaves little additional time for lawmakers to confront the problems facing child welfare in Kansas, where high-profile deaths in recent years point to a system in crisis.

More than a dozen members of Kansas’ child welfare task force and its subcommittees have signed a letter urging lawmakers to do more.

“It is extremely frustrating,” said Sarah Coats, who signed the letter. “Before this session we knew there were these issues. And now here we are again and the issues are the same — and there’s nothing being done.”

The panel’s examination of the system resulted in revelations about children missing from foster care, poor technology, children sleeping in offices and high turnover. In their final report, members urged lawmakers to provide additional funding for child welfare workers and improve data sharing.

Task force members have “deep concern” that lawmakers have only made minimal progress. The vast majority of the recommendations have seen no progress and the system remains in crisis, the letter says.

Gov. Laura Kelly on Thursday told reporters she shares the frustration of task force members. But she emphasized that lawmakers are on track to provide additional funding and have worked on some of the report’s recommendations.

“Would I like it to go faster? Sure. But that can’t happen. It took us a long time to get to this mess. It’s going to take us some time to get out,” Kelly said.

Kelly also said naming Laura Howard, a former administrator at the University of Kansas, to lead the Department for Children and Families was the most important action she could take to help children in the foster care system.

Pressure to fix Kansas foster care has been building for years. More than 7,300 children are in the state’s custody — among the highest numbers ever for Kansas. And the dozens of foster children missing from homes at any given time have captured the public’s attention.

Rep. Jarrod Ousley, D-Merriam, who was a member of the child welfare task force, said he had high hopes for big changes this session.

“Yes, I’m frustrated,” Ousley said. But he’s quick to add that some good things are happening outside of the Legislature.

As a key lawmaker on child welfare issues, Ousley has gotten calls for years from people complaining about a troubled system. Recently, he said, he’s been hearing positive feedback about changes happening inside DCF, including about Howard.

“On one hand, I can say we’ve done next to nothing legislatively,” Ousley said. “But I think getting Laura Howard in there, I think did improve things.”

In an interview Tuesday, Howard didn’t echo the frustrations of the task force members.

Instead, she praised lawmakers for being close to funding dozens of new child welfare workers over the next two years. She also thanked the Legislature for passing a bill that will allow Kansas for the first time to use federal funds to pay for prevention services to help keep children out of foster care.

And she said Kelly and lawmakers have pursued the task force’s top recommendations — called tier one in the report. Those included improving the child welfare system’s workforce, improving the agency’s information technology and drawing down federal funds for prevention services, among others.

“I think as I look at the letter, I appreciate the members of the task force who signed the letter and really have a commitment to wanting to make progress on all the recommendations. I think what I would say … I think that the governor and the Legislature have prioritized those recommendations that were tier one recommendations from the task force,” Howard said.

Howard — who wasn’t aware of the letter until a reporter brought it to her attention — said that with the exception of a handful of recommendations “we can articulate some progress that we’ve made.” She suggested that DCF may need to do a better job of communicating how it’s improving foster care separate from the legislative process.

“I think we’ve been kind of working so hard in 10 or 12 weeks to come and just get going that maybe we didn’t do that piece as well as we could,” Howard said.

Members urged lawmakers to provide additional funding to hire more child welfare workers and improve data sharing. Other recommendations included a better and more timely response to hotline calls and focus on increasing the number of foster homes.

Dozens of people dedicated time to the task force’s efforts in order to make life better for Kansas kids and families, Coats and other advocates said. All with the expectation the Legislature would act.

“It seems like a waste,” said Coats, who worked several years as a social worker with one of Kansas’ top child welfare contractors. “We have all of this information, all of the research done, people are committed to work and know what needs to be done and no one is doing anything. It’s like screaming at a brick wall.”

Lori Ross, a longtime child advocate in Missouri and Kansas, signed the letter that went to lawmakers. It’s disappointing, she said, that lawmakers haven’t done more.

“The task force was formed because the Legislature as well as the citizens of Kansas were not satisfied with the care that its most vulnerable children were receiving from the child welfare system,” Ross said.

Lawmakers must pass a budget when they return and are expected to provide additional funding for child welfare then. The funding is expected to pay for the additional child welfare staff and for exploring upgrades to computer systems at DCF, among other items.

A spokeswoman for Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, didn’t respond to a request for comment. House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, said he hadn’t seen the letter, and didn’t comment further after a reporter provided him a copy. A spokesman for House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, R-Wichita, didn’t comment.

What’s happened, Ross said, is the needs of abused and neglected children have had to compete with the needs of students across Kansas. School funding has loomed large over the legislative session.

Kansas kids can’t afford to wait for action, Ross said.

“It was a series of horrendous crises, including the deaths of several small children, that resulted in the creation of the task force,” Ross said. “I certainly hope it doesn’t take further child tragedy to inspire the actions of the Legislature.”

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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.
Jonathan Shorman covers Kansas politics and the Legislature for The Wichita Eagle and The Kansas City Star. He’s been covering politics for six years, first in Missouri and now in Kansas. He holds a journalism degree from the University of Kansas.