Children in foster care in Kansas and Missouri deserve better

Well-positioned advocates are toiling away in both states, but waiting years for more financial support only endangers more children.
Well-positioned advocates are toiling away in both states, but waiting years for more financial support only endangers more children. File illustration

When it comes to foster care, the challenges never go away.

Low pay. Too few families willing to help. Soaring numbers of kids in the system. High caseloads for workers keeping watch.

The good news: Well-positioned advocates in Kansas and Missouri are pledging to push anew for reforms to safeguard our most vulnerable children. That’s critical and a foundational responsibility of our state governments. After all, it was Hubert Humphrey who once said that the moral test of any government is how it treats its elderly, the sick and, of course, its children.

In Kansas, the new secretary of the Department for Children and Families is pledging a more transparent operation. The agency also must more effectively track children who leave their assigned foster homes without permission.

“One child away from placement is one too many,” Secretary Gina Meier-Hummel said.

In Missouri, first lady Sheena Greitens has announced a new study aimed at helping Missouri recruit more foster parents. An estimated 60 percent of new foster parents quit within a year.

“We want foster parents to know that they are respected, trusted and valued as they step up to protect and care for our kids,” Greitens said.

The first lady is dedicated to foster care — for good reason. Her parents adopted Greitens’ little sister when Sheena was in third grade.

Both Greitens and Meier-Hummel surely would agree that talk is cheap, and the need to follow through in their commitments to improved foster care systems is essential. Lots of good intentions have knocked around both states for decades. The need for significant new financial resources is a given, and that’s especially challenging at a time when both states have enacted sizable tax cuts that have placed other critical programs — think state highways, for one — in dire need of new funding, too.

In Kansas, lawmakers are under a state Supreme Court order to spend hundreds of millions more on schools. That means new funds for foster care are in jeopardy even though the system is so stretched that case workers have been forced to house children in agency offices.

Coming up with more money “is going to take time,” said Kansas state Rep. Linda Gallagher, a Lenexa Republican who’s working on the issue. “It won’t come as fast as anybody would like it.”

That may be political reality, but it’s also unacceptable. Foster children thrust into a system shrouded in unnecessary secrecy need our help now.

A University of Kansas study just determined that newly enacted restrictions on welfare benefits are leading to an increase in foster children. Lawmakers should examine that. They also don’t need to wait for the results of a task force to know that case workers are overworked, sometimes handling as many as 50 cases when loads half that size are considered big enough.

More foster parents are needed, and that means boosting state financial support. Low reimbursement rates via the state’s Medicaid system have led to a decline in the number of psychiatric facilities available for troubled kids. Now only eight centers serve the entire state, and that’s unacceptable, too. The computer network serving the foster system is so antiquated that it, too, adds to the dangers for foster children.

Foster kids deserve a whole lot more. And they deserve it now, not years down the road.