New administration tries to reverse increases in neglect, abuse, foster care

By Scott Rothschild,

Systems charged with keeping Kansas children safe from neglect and abuse have essentially been neglected and abused at the state level, according to incoming state officials.

In hearings before various committees, officials are unpacking failures over the past several years that have led to what is being described as multiple crises in foster care, child welfare and mental health, especially among young Kansans.

Gov. Laura Kelly’s new administration says the problems have arisen because of imprudent policies and revenue shortfalls and they touch every community and school district in Kansas.

Laura Howard, the new secretary of the Kansas Department for Children and Families, had been away from the state child welfare agency for eight years during the Gov. Sam Brownback-Jeff Colyer administrations.

When she returned last month, Howard said to a legislative committee, “Systems that were antiquated when I left, are still in place.”

As Kansas tightened welfare and food assistance benefits, the number of children in foster care increased from an average of 5,237 per month in 2011 to 7,635 now. That’s a 46 percent increase.

In her State of the State address, Gov. Kelly, who had previously served as a state senator, said nothing made her angrier over the past few years than what she called the “callous disregard” some state officials demonstrated toward children and families. “Our foster care system is at a crisis point. It requires immediate and considerable attention,” she said. Kelly appointed Howard to rebuild DCF, which Kelly said had been “decimated by ideology and mismanagement.”

Howard said that Kansas, like most states, saw an increase in foster care caseload associated with the recession. But, she added, “What is different in Kansas is we didn’t see a reversal of that a couple of years later.”

State Rep. Will Carpenter, R-El Dorado, who is chairman of the House Social Services Budget Committee said, “Our foster care system is in shambles. There is plenty of blame to go around. From here forward we need to do a better job.”

Howard responded, saying “We can and will.” She said her goal is addressing the stability of the system, which she said has been overwhelmed.

Kansas decided to cut costs in other health care areas, leading to a decrease in the number of psychiatric residential treatment facilities, which are for children who face significant mental health problems and need long periods of treatment. So now there is a waiting list of about 150 kids for these services.

Meanwhile, Kansas suicide deaths have increased 45 percent from 1999 to 2016, which is faster than the national rate. In 2016, suicide was second leading cause of death for Kansans 15-24 years old and the third leading cause of death for the 5-14 age group.

Reports of child abuse in Kansas have also increased 45 percent since 2010, according to Dona Booe, president of Kansas Children’s Service League. “We’re not going to grow strong and progress if we don’t address this,” she said.

Budget, policy support from Governor

Coming into office in January, Kelly committed dollars and policies that advocates say are needed to reverse these trends.
She has proposed adding 55 child welfare positions and funding Family First Prevention Services that will also draw down federal grants for programs designed to strengthen vulnerable families and prevent children from entering the foster care system.

Her budget continues a school mental health pilot program that officials say has been a success and some legislators are talking about expanding. The administration is also reviewing the various diversions of welfare funds that the Brownback administration had put in place for other programs.

Kelly’s proposal to expand Medicaid, drawing down federal funds to provide health care to more poor Kansans, has been touted by advocates as a way to increase mental health services and preventative care.

Various proposals from an interim Child Welfare Task Force are also being considered by the Legislature. While school funding will gather most of the attention during the legislative session, many of these initiatives will also affect school districts and students for years to come.

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