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Kansas foster kids get moved around less often, but some still have to sleep in offices

David Condos
Kansas News Service

Kansas was supposed to make sure that foster care providers stopped making kids sleep in offices and similar places by the end of 2021.

Kansas foster care contractors had more than 50 children sleep in offices and other inappropriate places in 2021 — despite a court settlement that pushes the state to fix its ailing, privatized foster care system.

That’s according to a new, third-party report released Monday, which concludes the contractors weren’t facing extraordinary circumstances that would justify these arrangements.

Still, the Kansas foster care system has improved, the report found.

The state’s contractors hit targets for moving children among foster homes less often. During 2021, 86% of the state’s foster kids were in stable placements, which topped the goal of 80% set for that year.

The report gauges the state’s progress toward goals set out in a 2020 court settlement stemming from a 2018 class-action lawsuit.

Kansas was supposed to make sure that foster care providers stopped making kids sleep in offices, conference rooms and similar places by the end of 2021.

“We understand that it takes time for meaningful change,” said Teresa Woody, the litigation director for Kansas Appleseed, one of the groups that brought the lawsuit. “But there’s a lot that needs to be done to protect foster care children.”

Wood praised signs of progress. But she said Kansas will need to keep working on community mental health services, contractor accountability, and supports that help families keep their children. She urged the Legislature to help with funding.

Most of the children who slept in offices and similarly inappropriate places in 2021 were there for one night. A handful slept there longer, including one whose stay outside of foster homes lasted 54 days.

Kansas was also supposed to put a stop to night-to-night foster home placements by Dec. 31, 2021. Those are situations in which foster kids get moved within a day. About 800 children experienced night-to-night moves in 2021.

More than 6,000 kids are in foster care in Kansas.

The Kansas agency that oversees foster care said in a press release that several initiatives will help give children more stability. The Department for Children and Families recently launched a network intended to offer stand-by service beds and added therapeutic foster homes for higher-needs children.

Gov. Laura Kelly highlighted these facts in a press release responding to the findings.

“My administration inherited a broken child welfare system,” Kelly said. “We have made substantial progress in making sure kids are in stable placements and experience fewer moves. There’s more work to be done, but this report shows we are headed in the right direction.”

Kansas agreed to a long list of improvements in the 2020 settlement, which includes a series of deadlines for reaching those goals.

The state has completed some of the changes already — such as tracking how many foster kids end up in correctional facilities.

But the third-party report found that the foster care system continues to subject children to delays in mental health care. And the state needs to improve its data, to allow for tracking caseworker workloads, for example.

The court settlement resulted from a 2018 class-action lawsuit against state officials.

Foster care contractors were shuffling children night after night from one home to the next, and having some sleep in offices.

The suit also accused Kansas of failing to ensure that foster kids get appropriate mental health care.

Children in foster care have high rates of trauma and mental health needs. By some estimates, as many as 50-80% need mental health services.

A team of lawyers from the National Center for Youth Law, Children’s Rights, Kansas Appleseed and private law firms represented the plaintiffs.

The lawsuit said some children had to switch their locations more than 100 times while in foster care. It argued that the situation compounded children’s trauma and made them, in effect, homeless.

The class-action suit didn’t ask for money. Instead, it demanded Kansas fix its foster care system.

The 2020 settlement gave Kansas various deadlines to make a long list of improvements.

Under the settlement, the Center for the Study of Social Policy is determining whether Kansas reaches various benchmarks, in part by checking random samples of foster kids to see how often they get moved and whether they receive timely mental health care.

A separate court settlement from earlier this summer requires the foster care system to pay $1.25 million after a child was sexually assaulted while forced to sleep in an office.

The assault happened in 2018. The victim was 13 years old at that time and had been sleeping in a Johnson County office of foster care contractor KVC Kansas. KVC was also keeping an 18-year-old there who had a history of abusing others and attacked the girl when KVC staff weren’t around.

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

Celia Llopis-Jepsen is a reporter for the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @celia_LJ or email her at celia (at) kcur (dot) 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.

I'm the creator of the environmental podcast Up From Dust. I write about how the world is transforming around us, from topsoil loss and invasive species to climate change. My goal is to explain why these stories matter to Kansas, and to report on the farmers, ranchers, scientists and other engaged people working to make Kansas more resilient. Email me at celia@kcur.org.
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