‘We are making these children homeless’: Kansas is harming foster kids, lawsuit says

Foster children in Kansas are shuffled between homes and facilities so much — in one boy’s case, more than 130 placements in six years — that youth can be rendered “homeless while in state custody,” a lawsuit filed Friday alleges.

The class action suit, filed in federal court, alleges that children have been treated so poorly that they’ve suffered mentally or run away from foster homes. In some 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 says.

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.

“As Kansans, we should be ashamed and outraged that our own state government is harming our most vulnerable children this way,” said Benet Magnuson, executive director of Kansas Appleseed, a nonprofit justice center serving excluded Kansans. “The problems have become too dangerous and too entrenched that we believe this lawsuit is necessary to protect our children.”

The goal of the suit isn’t to receive money, but to fix the system for these children 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.

The Department for Children and Families, responding to the suit, said improvements have been made since Meier-Hummel took over almost a year ago.

In a statement, the department said it had “implemented numerous changes and initiatives to improve child safety and well being, strengthen the foster care system, create a robust workforce, increase transparency and change the culture at DCF to one of compassion and professionalism.”

The number of vacant positions has dropped from 20.7 percent to 8 percent, the agency said. The number of missing and runaway youth dropped from 81 in August 2017 to 55 now. And in September, the agency implemented Risk Removal Staffings, which has kept 48 youth from needing to enter care, according to the statement.

Lori Burns-Bucklew, a Kansas City attorney and accredited child welfare law specialist, joined Kansas Appleseed, the National Center for Youth Law, and Children’s Rights in filing the suit. The consortium seeks to represent approximately 7,600 children in Kansas foster care and others who will be placed there in the future.

After spending three decades fighting for children in state custody, Burns-Bucklew said seeing what was happening in Kansas called for strong action.

“The system removes children from their homes because it believes they aren’t safe and aren’t being taken care of,” she said. “They are removed with a promise of granting them safety and healing. Instead, we are making these children homeless. We are causing more damage than we are preventing.”

Lori Ross, a long-time Missouri child advocate who has been working to help improve Kansas’ system, said night-to-night placements can cause incredible harm and trauma to a child.

“What one-night stays do is they make it very clear to the child that they have zero value to anyone,” Ross said. “You aren’t valuable enough to have stuff. You’re not valuable enough to go to school. ... That is just wrong.”

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 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 youths were at the office that evening in May awaiting placement in available foster homes or facilities. The KVC worker, who is no longer working for the agency, was supervising the two teens and another youth.

The class action lawsuit mentions the reported rape at the KVC office.

“That tragic incident also exemplified a long known danger,” the suit said. “Kansas’ child welfare system is, and has been for at least a decade, systemically failing to protect the safety and well being of vulnerable children and youth in foster care in the custody of the Kansas Department for Children and Families.”

The reported rape also has been discussed among lawmakers and advocates who make up a legislative task force that has been meeting for more than a year in an effort to improve Kansas’ child welfare system.

A report is due to the Legislature in January.

“This is the worst crisis, both in terms of housing instability and denial of mental health support, that we’ve seen in decades of doing this work,” said Leecia Welch, senior director of legal advocacy and child welfare at the National Center for Youth Law.

Ira Lustbader, litigation director at Children’s Rights, said what is going on in Kansas is “both heartbreaking and unlawful.”

“After the trauma of removing kids from their homes, the state is depriving these children of any semblance of stability,” he said. “And at the same time denying them mental health services.”

Eight of the 10 children detailed in the litigation haven’t received the medical treatment they need, according to the lawsuit.

One girl, referred to as Z.Z., has been in DCF custody for six years. As a 5-year-old she initially was placed with an older foster mother and had to be removed because of that woman’s health. After that disruption, the lawsuit says she began to have behavioral health issues. She was placed in a residential treatment facility for several months and began to improve.

“But, upon information and belief, her treatment was artificially cut short,” the lawsuit said. “Despite Z.Z’s continued need for mental health treatment, she left the (treatment facility) prematurely and without access to any ‘step down’ placements to meet her ongoing treatment needs.”

She then went through a “string of night-to-night and short-term placements, including being forced to sleep overnight in child welfare offices.”

At one point, when she “placed her own life and her foster mother’s life at risk,” Z.Z. was put on a waiting list for months for a second treatment facility and was not given a diagnostic brain scan or alternative treatment despite the need, according to the lawsuit.

While on the waiting list, she was moved between 10 different placements from May 2017 to June 2018. She still does not have a stable placement or the mental health treatment she needs, according to the suit.

When Meier-Hummel took over the troubled agency in December, it was widely-known across Kansas that the system designed to protect children was broken. To see how badly, the new secretary requested a top-to-bottom review by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

That review showed that in the Kansas City area, workers for the Kansas Department for Children and Families recently carried an average of 55 cases per worker. In Wichita, average caseloads had been as high as 50 while statewide they were at 38. Recommended caseloads for workers investigating abuse and neglect are about 15.

Other concerns identified in the review included how some abuse and neglect investigations across Kansas took several months, even up to a year or two, to close. Plus, reviewers highlighted how DCF has been crippled by an archaic computer system, a lack of timely training for employees and also has struggled to keep workers and fill positions. The system also suffers from a lack of foster homes and placements.

“While subjected to this extreme ‘churning’ practice, children often miss school, some run away, and some even fall victim to child sex trafficking,” the lawsuit says. “... Housing instability also causes direct physical harm to children’s normal brain development and central nervous system.”

House Majority Leader Don Hineman, R-Dighton, said changes are needed in Kansas. Lawmakers across the state are well aware, he said, that children are falling through the cracks. And the issue will likely come up in Topeka next session.

But, he said, it’s not just the fault of agencies and top officials.

“I believe that one of the greatest needs is for more foster care families that can take on these children,” he said. “I understand some folks wanting to file a lawsuit, but from my perception, I think that Governor Colyer and Secretary Meier-Hummel have done a really good job of recognizing that there are inadequacies in the present system and doing what they can to address those.”

Friday’s lawsuit comes as Democrat Laura Kelly prepares to take over the governor’s office. Kelly, currently a Topeka state senator, won election last week in part on promises to reform the state’s child welfare system.

Since the election, Kelly has divulged few details about exactly what changes she wants to make at DCF, or who she wants to lead the agency. But she has consistently said the system will be a key focus.

“DCF itself has been so dysfunctional and so under-resourced in the past eight years. They don’t have the social workers at the front end to do family preservation, they don’t have them at the back end to do reintegration into adoptive or biological families and then their oversight has not been good — the missing kids,” Kelly told reporters last week.

Kelly had been asked whether she wants to end the privatization of the state’s foster care system. She said she is not looking at that option currently because of the problems within DCF.

“We need to figure out what the agency needs to do and that will give us a much better idea of whether privatizing works or whether it doesn’t,” Kelly said.

The last child mentioned in the lawsuit is M.L., a 17-year-old girl currently in state custody. According to the lawsuit, she has been abused and neglected for the 10 years she’s been in the custody of the state of Kansas.

She was removed from her home and put into DCF custody in 2007, along with two biological siblings, an older sister and infant brother. The three were adopted three years later. Soon after, M.L. and her sister were “repeatedly sexually assaulted and sodomized by their adoptive father and adoptive brother,” according to the lawsuit.

“The sisters remained in this home for three years despite multiple calls to Child Protective Services reporting the abuse,” the suit says.

In 2013, the children were removed from their adoptive home. The state separated M.L. from her two siblings. From 2013 to 2018, M.L. has had 42 different placements, shuffled between foster homes, group homes and treatment facilities.

“On several occasions, DCF cycled M.L. through night-to-night placements for weeks at a time,” the lawsuit said. “At other times, DCF forced M.L. to sleep overnight in child welfare agency offices, once for an entire week.”

During one overnight office stay, M.L. allegedly was physically assaulted by a DCF contract agency staff member. Yet, she continued to be housed in the office.

In 2017, she was placed in a residential treatment facility. Though her mental health needs didn’t require such a placement, the lawsuit alleges that no other “less restrictive placement” was available.

“On at least two occasions in 2018, M.L. has run away from DCF care in an effort to escape the churning and further abuse,” the suit said. “M.L. still does not have a stable placement.”