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After scathing federal report, committee takes aim at foster care system

Andrew Bahl
Laura Howard, secretary of the Kansas Department for Children and Families.

The leader of the agency charged with managing the state’s foster care system said changes had been made in response to both a federal report and a major class-action settlement over separate issues facing foster children.

The testimony from Laura Howard, secretary of the Kansas Department for Children and Families, came as lawmakers launch a series of hearings into potential ways to bolster a system that Gov. Laura Kelly pledged to make a top priority for her administration when taking office last year.

Rep. Susan Concannon, R-Beloit, who chairs the panel, said the opportunity to publicly probe the issue was one that lawmakers hadn’t had in many years.

“We’re all very eager for some answers and transparency with the system,” she said.

The committee wasn’t a direct response to developments within the foster care system in recent months, but officials said it was good timing that the review follows a report last month from the federal Office of Inspector General that found DCF didn’t ensure compliance with safety standards in 24 of the state’s 31 group homes.

The report noted a lack of oversight from the state resulted in buildings filled with trash that in some cases had missing windows or holes in the walls.

“The homes were generally allowed to maintain operations without making needed repairs,” the report read.

In addition, all but two of the group homes violated background check requirements for employees. And one home housed teenage boys and girls together in violation of its license.

DCF disputed some of the charges but broadly agreed with the recommendations in the report, which included stricter checks on the homes to ensure compliance.

The OIG report came just weeks after the state agreed to an out-of-court settlement with a trio of nonprofits to end a 2018 federal suit that demanded better care of foster kids.

The deal requires that DCF end the use of offices for overnight stays, limit short-term placements and expand mental health services for youths.

Howard said substantial improvement had already been made on these points, including data showing that only 10% of placements between July 2019 and January 2020 were for one day.

Those short-term placements can lead to children missing school or even running away, advocacy groups say.

“There are reasons why a placement might only be one calendar day,” Howard countered, although she said that “the number is going down.”

Lawmakers also pressed the state’s four case management contractors, which are responsible for children in foster care, on a broad slate of other issues.

Sen. Molly Baumgardner, R-Louisburg, said children being placed outside their home region remains a problem, even though contractors and DCF maintain it doesn’t happen routinely.

“Rather than moving a county north, they are shifted to other areas of the state that are more than a three hour-drive away,” she said, adding that it “is not rumor, it is what we are hearing” from families.

Members were buoyed, however, by news that a significant funding increase for the foster care system signed into law last year by Kelly might be bearing fruit.

That measure also brings the state in line with a 2018 federal law aimed at keeping children out of foster care in the first place.

The resulting federal and state funding has largely been funneled to programs for children at “imminent risk” for entering the foster care system.

They could address mental health, substance abuse or other issues within a family or simply move a child to live with extended family, such as a grandparent.

Of the 500 families that have participated in the services, Deputy DCF Secretary Tanya Kees said, 94% were able to keep their child at home.

“We know it is early and more information is needed but we’re pleased,” Kees said.

The hearings are set to continue Wednesday and throughout the fall. Concannon said future topics will range from the intersection of foster care and juvenile justice to supporting youth with intellectual disabilities.

And while Concannon said that there was reason for confidence in Howard’s leadership of the agency, lawmakers will have lots of questions.

“We know she is making a positive impact,” she said. “But is is not all rosy, as we all know. We just have to get to the meat.”