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Federal money is powering a 'monumental shift' in Kansas that helps keep kids out of foster care

Community Solutions Incorporated staff pack backpacks as part of the Family First program.
Courtesy Community Solutions, Inc.
Kansas was one of the first states to jump on the federal money. It funds programs including this school supply distribution.

Kansas was one of the first states in the country to access federal Family First prevention money. Programs it is funding have spent years growing.

TOPEKA, Kansas — A recent wave of child welfare programs that are keeping kids out of the troubled foster care system are growing in Kansas because of federal investment.

These programs come at a crucial time. Audits of the state’s foster care system paint a bleak picture of child welfare.

Children struggle to get mental health care, they move around to homes too much and individualized supports are difficult to get. One advocate for children says there is a lack of resources and “once kids are in the system,it’s still very bad.”

But there are bright spots.

The Family-Centered Treatment program at foster care agency St. Francis Ministries keeps 87% of families together a year after they leave the program, but in some individual months, success rates are as high as 99%. Service agency Community Solutions Incorporated’s program helps up to 90% of kids avoid foster care and up to 95% have no new arrests. At FosterAdopt Connect, every child who has gone through the program in the last two years has avoided foster care.

These services exist because of a federal program called Family First, which was signed into law in early 2018. Kansas submitted its amended plan for the money in 2020. Kansas was one of the first states in the nation to access those federal dollars, something not every state has done. While some states are still preparing to get the money, Kansas programs have spent the last few years growing.

Nicole McCauley, vice president of in-home services at foster care agency St. Francis Ministries, said she’s historically seen resources go toward foster homes and adoption. That’s important, but it’s more reactionary and helps kids only once they are removed from their home. Now there is growing investment in keeping kids out of the foster care system in the first place.

“It’s a monumental shift,” McCauley said. “It strengthens the entire child welfare system.”

Federal first money is designed to keep kids out of state custody and programs tend to focus on families who have not yet lost their children. It doesn’t exactly help kids in the foster care system. However, advocates argue investment in prevention work helps everyone.

They say it is cheaper to spend money helping families than it is to pay for foster parents, case workers and all the services that come with foster care. Those services, caseworkers and foster parent networks could also be overwhelmed by the current need in the system.

Providers who are receiving this federal money say it helped create programs, and without it, some preventative work wouldn’t exist. Those agencies say it also lets them be more creative with programming, lets them develop areas of expertise and gives the state a wider array of prevention programs that families can benefit from.

The money is being used for in-home treatment or helping parents build skills for managing a family, like helping families set a schedule in the morning so kids don’t arrive late at school. Not only does the child get to school on time, but it prevents parents from yelling or being frustrated.

For foster care agency TFI Kansas, their programming is a type of play therapy.

Typical play therapy is a therapist watching a child play. But this program is a therapist watching a parent and child play together.

“If the kiddo is playing, and they're sitting down nicely, the therapists will say, ‘Hey, Dad, can you praise the kiddo by saying, you’re sitting down very nicely in your chair,’” said Shannon Horton, director of Grow Nurturing Families at TFI.

Horton said this program targets kids as young as two years old. More conventional types of therapy say that’s too young to start treatment. For starters, it might be difficult for the child to even talk through their feelings. But Horton says these years are important to develop attachment and self esteem.

“If we can start what we traditionally think of maybe too young, it does tend … to make an impact year after year,” she said.

Two recent audits laid out dozens of shortfalls in the state’s child welfare system. Some of those were related to mental health access, worker caseloads and programs tailored for a child’s individual needs. The specialized programs funded through federal money often offer exactly those services with exactly that.

One federal audit of foster care said services can be hard to find across the state. Urban areas could have waitlists and rural areas might have almost no services at all.

That’s something Terri Williams, chief development officer for Community Solutions Incorporated, is addressing. Williams’ program just expanded to all 105 counties this July.

This program gets therapists into the homes of patients, cutting down on transportation needs.

Four years ago, the state had zero therapists certified in multi-systemtic therapy. Now, the state has dozens. These therapists work to reduce anti-social behaviors and help families get along better. Their main goal is keeping kids at home.

Williams said there have been multiple attempts to bring this in-home therapy to Kansas, but funding was too unreliable. With family first, Community Solutions had a more reliable source of money and finally added the treatment option.

“We have this money available, we want to use it in the very best way and have the very best impact that we can have,” she said. “Because those resources oftentimes can be scarce.”

The lack of programming for high needs children is a common critique of the state’s child welfare system. Williams said this program keeps caseloads low so families can get more intensive services.

“We've seen lots of different funding mechanisms across the country,” Williams said. “But this is a real investment that Kansas has leveraged … That's been instrumental in allowing us to not only exist, but to expand the services statewide.”

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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