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Kansas lost 500 foster homes. A survey of foster parents who dropped out shows why

Child Advocate Kerrie Lonard talks to state lawmakers.
Blaise Mesa
Kansas News Service
A report from the Division of the Child Advocate found that lack of support was a major reason foster parents quit. The state's child advocate, Kerrie Lonard, briefed legislators on Thursday.

Problems with foster care agencies was a common reasons parents stopped fostering.

TOPEKA, Kansas — Shawn Wilson’s foster child spent nine to 12 hours a week in the car.

The child was being driven across the state to visit her father. Wilson said keeping those parental bonds are important for kids, but she was worried the constant car trips weren’t best for the girl.

“She missed every single friend's birthday,” Wilson said. “Swimming pool parties — she missed those because she was having to be forced on this trip.”

Wilson complained and complained. But each time she tried to get help for the girl, Wilson found herself directed to yet another agency. After three months of visits, the child jumped into a pond hoping to avoid another long car ride.

Wilson said she felt ignored and isolated as a foster parent. She said she knew there was a problem, but the foster care system had little urgency to address it.

Wilson was a kinship parent. That means she wasn’t a licensed foster parent because she took in a child she knew. She considered becoming a licensed foster parent. That would allow her to take on more kids, but her first time in the foster care system was more than enough.

“When we first started we were like, ‘Okay, you know, maybe we could do this,’” Wilson said. “After we were in this system … (it) was like one and done, I will never do this again.”

Wilson is among hundreds of foster parents who found the system too overwhelming to continue to take in children.

Kansas has lost around 500 foster parents between July 2019 and June 2022, and the state is finally starting to learn why. The Division of the Child Advocate finished a survey of former foster parents. The survey was designed to find common complaints parents have so the state can improve.

Brook Town, a case analyst with the child advocate’s office, said training, communication, respect and support were the most common complaints. Almost half of the families who closed their licenses said the state’s private foster care agencies didn’t help parents enough.

The families said there wasn’t much communication about a child’s needs before or during placement, training to address specific issues were hard to find, mental health care was hard to enroll kids in and that when they voiced concerns they felt ignored.

“Foster parents really wanted to be treated like professionals,” she said. “They see these kids day in and day out. They really know a lot more about them.”

The survey was sent out to 2,400 former foster homes and about 600 responded.

The 40-page report recommended a survey of current foster parents, better training plans so parents know what programs they need and better screenings of children when they first come into care so parents are aware of the kids' needs.

One specific area of need was respite care. When a biological parent feels overwhelmed, they’re allowed to drop their kids off with friends or relatives. Foster parents can’t do that. It would violate state law. In some cases, they were told to find respite care by going to Facebook.

The Division of the Child Advocate also recommended the state implement respite licenses so foster parents had more places they could drop kids off when they need a break.

While the recommendations made Thursday could take time to be implemented, foster parents have spokenpositively about the Division of the Child Advocate. Wilson, the foster parent whose child jumped into a pond, said case investigators at the DCA “did stand out above the rest,” but she worries the office lacks the teeth to bring change.

The oversight office has received over 80 complaints involving around 120 children so far in 2023. The conduct of state foster care contracts were some of the most common complaints.

State Sen. Beverly Gossage, a Eudora Republican, is hopeful the new office is one part of the solution.

“We would like to hear people come … and say we had this issue, this issue and this issue,” she said. “But thankfully we went to the child advocate and through their help, we were able to resolve this, this, this and this.”

Blaise Mesa reports on criminal justice and social services for the Kansas News Service in Topeka. You can 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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