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Foster kids in Kansas can't get the mental health care they need, but there might be a fix

A sign that says "Kansas Department for Children and Families. Strong Families Make a Strong Kansas."
Blaise Mesa
Kansas News Service
Access to mental health services is an issue for foster kids. One state legislator a fix is moving forward.

Changes in state law should help expand mental health services, but it will take years to get everyone on board.

TOPEKA, Kansas — Beth Patton needs to get her adopted child mental health services, but the boy faces problems too serious for any professional in her county to handle.

“I did have the police department at my house,” said Patton, who lives in Independence, Kansas. “He needs help. And he needs help before it gets to that point. And nobody wants to be proactive.”

Two of her children get online mental health services through insurance coverage, but she can no longer afford to pay out of pocket for additional help.

She’s reached out to state officials, but they directed her to a community mental health center that Patton said lacks the specialists her son needs. She is getting adoption subsidies from the state foster care system, but that offers only a fraction of the foster rate and falls well short of covering her actual costs.

Patton used to work as a vocational rehabilitation counselor for the Kansas Department for Children and Families. Yet she said her familiarity with, and connections in, the state’s foster system haven’t helped.

“I still can’t get what I need,” she said. “They point fingers to someone else. And then I try that person. And they say, ‘Well, no, we can’t do that. It's got to be this.’ It’s very frustrating.”

A 2016 study published in the National Library of Medicine says 50-80% of foster youth need mental health services, a higher rate than the general public. Of those, 23% have multiple possible diagnoses. That is because of the traumatic nature of the things that lead to falling into custody and the chaos of foster care that follows.

State Rep. Susan Concannon, chair of the Joint Committee on Child Welfare System Oversight, said she has heard about foster kids struggling to get regular mental health appointments. But she said the Legislature has already approved something that should help.

Kansas community mental health centers are shifting toward a certified community behavioral health clinic model. That would give the centers access to a higher reimbursement rate. That, in turn, would allow them to hire, or keep, more workers even if their caseloads don’t grow. All 26 community mental health centers are expected to become certified by 2024.

Kyle Kessler, executive director of the Association of Community Mental Health Centers of Kansas, Inc., said this model was created directly to address the issues like rising suicide rates, overdose deaths and workforce shortages.

“This really underscores why we're here,” he said. “(Making) sure that youth in foster care have the quickest possible access to community mental health services is absolutely key.”

People from multiple community mental health centers testified before lawmakers Monday morning. Not every one of these agencies was certified, but they should be soon. One certified agency said it hired more staff and addressed workforce turnover issues.

Matt Atteberry, executive director of the Labette County Center for Mental Health Services, Inc., said his county has some of the most foster kids per capita.

“We are fantastically busy,” he told lawmakers.

Atteberry’s agency isn’t certified yet but should be soon. Atteberry said the certification will send more money to the center so it can have staff itI currently can’t afford.

Michelle Ponce, associate director with the Association of Community Mental Health Centers, said the community centers in Kansas have a 25% vacancy rate. She said Kansas has historically done well providing mental health services, but there have been recent struggles, like workforce and funding issues.

Switching over to a new funding model that typically directs more money to centers will add services and staff and bring shorter wait times, and it won’t help just foster kids – it’ll help schools, veterans and other communities of need.

It’ll take years for everything to be achieved, which doesn’t help Patton right now, but Ponce is excited for the future.

“It's not going to happen overnight. It's a transition,” she said. “We're already seeing some promising outcomes from the first nine centers who have achieved certification.” 

Blaise Mesa reports on criminal justice and social services for the Kansas News Service in Topeka. You can follow him on Twitter @Blaise_Mesa or email him at blaise@kcur.org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. 

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Blaise Mesa is based in Topeka, where he covers the Legislature and state government for the Kansas City Beacon. He previously covered social services and criminal justice for the Kansas News Service.
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