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Kansas Shops For Second Opinion On Welfare Reform's Impact On Foster Care Load

The University of Kansas School of Social Work. Then-KU social work professor Michelle Johnson Motoyama and current KU economist Donna Ginther received a grant to research the effects of safety net policies on child welfare.
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The University of Kansas School of Social Work. Then-KU social work professor Michelle Johnson Motoyama and current KU economist Donna Ginther received a grant to research the effects of safety net policies on child welfare.

A University of Kansas study linked tighter welfare rules to a growing foster care load.

The state agency overseeing those programs backed those same new rules. Now, it’s hired a research team to question the findings of the KU study.

A team headed by University of Maryland professor Douglas Besharov — who once worked for a conservative think tank and who head's the school's welfare reform program — has been reviewing KU’s research.

But he said his goal is to see if the KU researchers’ conclusions hold up to scrutiny, and that he’s in the mainstream of data-driven opinions on welfare.

“I share the consensus view that some form of work-related activity is very good for welfare programs and welfare recipients,” he said.

Besharov is working with Neil Gilbert, a professor at the University of California Berkeley, to review KU’s findings. The two have written on welfare’s impact on marriage together for R Street, a conservative and libertarian think tank. They’ve also written for the Weekly Standard, a conservative opinion magazine.   

Department for Children and Families spokeswoman Taylor Forrest said Besharov was suggested to the agency as a leading expert in child welfare and welfare programs.

She said the department approached Besharov to review the KU researchers’ work and, by extension, DCF’s policies. Forrest said DCF isn’t required to post an open call to researchers for consulting purposes.

Under then-Gov. Sam Brownback, Kansas added a requirement that able-bodied cash welfare recipients work 20 hours per week or take job training. Cash assistance benefits were also capped at 24 months over a recipient’s lifetime.

Annie McKay, head of the child advocacy group Kansas Action for Children, said the hiring of academics to challenge an ongoing study looks like an effort to shop for research backing up its policies rather than testing them.

“(DCF) wants to go poking holes in something rather than buckling down and owning the crisis at hand,” she said. “We have an administration that wants to continue to protect an ideology that is costing Kansas kids.”

Since DCF hired Besharov and his team to review KU’s findings, he and the KU researchers have clashed over sharing data.

Besharov emailed KU economist Donna Ginther and Ohio State social work professor Michelle Johnson-Motoyama on Oct. 5 to let the two know he was asked to evaluate their work. He asked about some of their methods and asked the researchers to share their state-level data.

Johnson-Motoyama replied a week later saying that their research is still a draft, not yet ready to be submitted to a peer-reviewed journal.

“We view the peer review process as the most objective and independent approach to refereeing original research,” she said in the email. Johnson-Motoyama added that they’d be happy to share the study with Besharov once it’s published.

But Besharov pushed back. He emailed back on Oct. 18 saying he and Gilbert were “surprised” and hoped Ginther and Johnson-Motoyama would reconsider their decision to not share more information.

“The problem is that whether or not they have official findings, they’ve testified at official hearings,” Besharov told the Kansas News Service. “You can’t do it halfway. You can’t put it out there and say ‘it’s not done, so you can’t review it.’”

Johnson-Motoyama presented KU’s preliminary findings to members of the House Children and Seniors Committee and to a task force examining the state’s child welfare policies during the last legislative session.

The KU study is still ongoing, but researchers said preliminary results last year showed Kansas’ spike in foster kids — a 42 percent increase over the number of kids in 2012 — correlated with the new welfare policies.

Ginther said they’ve presented their preliminary findings to policymakers to alert them to potential harm to children.

“We’re talking about children’s lives,” Ginther said. “We have evidence that (Kansas’ welfare) policy is putting children at risk … so you inform the policymakers who are in a position to make a decision.”

Ginther and Johnson-Motoyama also presented their preliminary results linking Kansas’ changes in welfare policy to more kids in foster care at a conference in December. Ginther says they’ve continued to follow a standard protocol since then -- talking with subject matter experts, adding data, and working on a draft to submit for peer review.

She said she was “stunned” by the request to see her data and programs.

“You don’t share your data and programs before your paper’s finished — it’s just not done,” she said.

Ginther said she also couldn’t share the data they used on child abuse and neglect because it’s restricted. She said she got that information from the National Data Archive on Child Abuse and Neglect, through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families.

The agency’s website says “Restricted use files of (child abuse and neglect) data are archived at the National Data Archive on Child Abuse and  Neglect (NDACAN) at Cornell University and available to researchers who are interested in using these data for statistical analyses.” Officials from the Administration for Children and Families did not return calls for this story.

After Besharov’s second email, Ginther said she was contacted by KU’s department of public affairs passing on a request from Gov. Jeff Colyer’s office asking why KU couldn’t share the study data and programs.

Kara Zeyer, a spokeswoman for Colyer, confirmed that the governor’s office reached out to KU at Besharov’s request.

Zeyer said the governor’s office got involved because if the KU study showed Kansas’ welfare policy was harmful, “we would be happy to have that information so we could make improvements.” Zeyer said it’s a matter of transparency — if KU has the information, it should be able to share that data with Besharov and his team.

Besharov said he was initially given an Oct. 31 deadline to complete his review. He said he let DCF know he wouldn’t be able to make the deadline, and didn’t receive any pushback about his review not being complete before the November elections.

Ginther said she’s shocked by Besharov’s pushing to get her data and the governor’s response of reaching out to KU.

“I’m just flabbergasted by the steps they’ve taken,” she said.

Madeline Fox  is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach her on Twitter @maddycfox
Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

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