African-American children are much more likely to land in the Kansas foster care system than white children.
A report from Strengthen Families Rebuild Hope, a coalition of organizations and people who have experience with the foster care system, concluded that Kansas falls in line with national trends. But the disparity in Kansas, with black children 75 percent more likely than white children to be pulled from their homes, has gotten worse in the past two years.
Coalition member Tara Wallace said that reflects the strain of having a record number of kids in foster care in Kansas.
“At the rate we’re going,” she said, “this situation is only perpetuating itself.”
Wallace is the president of the Topeka chapter of the Kansas African American Foster Care/Adoption Coalition. She joined five former foster youth, representatives of social workers and the ACLU, the foster parent organization FosterAdopt Connect, the Kansas Association of Community Action Programs, Kansas Appleseed and other individuals with past or current experience working in child welfare to form the coalition’s steering committee.
The report released Thursday morning echoes concerns brought up by a task force examining Kansas foster care and a recently filed federal lawsuit that alleges Kansas has rendered children in its care effectively homeless with frequent moves.
Strengthen Families Rebuild Hope recommended Kansas better support struggling families with improvements to safety net programs such as food stamps and cash welfare.
“Families are on this tightrope,” said Becky Fast, a coalition member who heads the National Association of Social Workers’ Kansas chapter. “When you don’t have food assistance, cash assistance, that our state used to provide, that often knocks them off.”
Preliminary results from a study at the University of Kansas have suggested a connection between restrictions on welfare eligibility and the climbing number of kids in foster care. Gov.-elect Laura Kelly has said reexamining those restrictive policies will be a top priority when she takes office.
The coalition also recommended more investment in foster care prevention services. They range from home-visit programs of at-risk families to drug and alcohol abuse treatment. The group highlighted the Families First Prevention Act, a federal law that can match funds for many of these programs.
The Kansas Department for Children and Families has asked for $3.9 million from the state budget to put toward Families First-eligible programs, but child welfare advocates say DCF should seek $30 million from the Legislature.
Finally, the coalition says the Kansas foster care system needs to do better by the kids who end up in state care. The report highlights foster children’s lack of stability in foster care placements — the focus of the November lawsuit — and encourages more and better placements for kids with a variety of needs.
As of last month, there were 7,505 children in foster care in Kansas. Kansas’ ratio of kids in foster care to total kids in the state is nearly double the national average.
On average, they’re spending close to two years in the system. Those who leave care are also coming back in at a higher rate than a federal performance standard.
As of 2017, Kansas had more licensed foster care beds than children in the foster care system, according to a report from the Chronicle for Social Change. That doesn’t include placements with relatives, who can take in family members in the foster system without having to be licensed.
Kansas had 7,367 beds in 2017. DCF says they have recruited additional foster families and set up additional beds in group homes in the past year.
But having more beds than kids doesn’t mean there are enough beds. Some foster homes and group homes are only licensed to take younger kids, or kids of one gender. And some children, such as those with disabilities or records of assaults, have more needs than many foster families are able to meet.
The coalition also recommends lowering social workers’ foster care caseloads. DCF recommends social workers handle 25-30 cases. A Legislative Post Audit report from last year found that from 2014 to 2016, both foster care contractors often had caseloads higher than that.
Fast, of the social workers’ organization, said that puts a nearly impossible strain on social workers that makes them more likely to leave those jobs.
“Those that are hurt, in the end, are children,” she said. “The people who knew them best often leave, and they have to start over again.”
The Strengthen Families Rebuild Hope report joins a number of similar reports and requests advocating for drastic changes to foster care released in recent months. They fall into the lap of Kelly when she takes office in January.
Kelly has listed foster care as one of her top priorities as she comes into office.
Ried said the coalition put together the report with policymakers in mind.
“It was really crafted strategically to give data points to legislators,” he 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.
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