Turmoil marks the troubled norm for foster care in Kansas.
Now political, financial and legal forces look poised to slam the system into a new level of chaos that makes seasoned child welfare professionals worried about a barrage of change.
And a lawsuit filed by three organizations against state agencies says Kansas so bungles the care of kids in crisis it renders them homeless, shifting them one night after the next to new, unfamiliar, sometimes unsafe locations.
In the midst of all this, the state’s Department for Children and Families plans to blow up the system it’s used for more than two decades to delegate children’s care to private nonprofit companies.
Once courts pull children from troubled homes in Kansas, the practical work of finding them temporary or permanent homes largely gets handed off to private companies.
With new grants that go into effect July 1, DCF is splitting some jobs among more nonprofits. It’s turning children’s foster home choices over to a master software program. And the agency plans to switch foster care and family preservation to a grant system — meaning it’ll reach out to companies directly and skip the oversight of the state’s Department of Administration.
The grants have been awarded to three new players, in addition to the two current contractors. Missouri-based Cornerstones of Care and Florida-based Eckerd Connects are moving in to handle family preservation, and former contractor TFI Family Services is returning to again pick up territory as a foster care provider.
But some, like family psychologist Wes Crenshaw, say adding agencies is just shuffling the puzzle pieces around rather than making a real fix. Crenshaw has worked with foster kids since before the state started delegating the care of foster children to private contractors in 1996.
“What magic,” Crenshaw said, “does a nonprofit out of Florida have to come to Kansas and sprinkle its pixie dust on our situation and make it better?”
Both lost family preservation responsibilities in the new system. Cornerstones of Care will handle services to help keep families out of foster care in a handful of counties around Kansas City. Eckerd will pick up the rest of the state.
DCF Secretary Gina Meier-Hummel said fresh blood will mean new tools to get at child welfare problems.
“The more people you bring in,” she said, “the more resources you bring to the table, the better the outcomes for kids and families.”
But neither of those two new providers has run family preservation in Kansas before. Child advocates have reason to be skeptical of Eckerd. Its foster care programs in Florida have had many of the same problems that plague Kansas — kids sleeping in offices, rotating between one-night placements, and suffering abuse while in care.
That worries foster care advocate Lori Ross, who questioned why that didn’t concern the agency enough exclude Eckerd from its new grantees.
Eckerd’s checkered record springs from how it managed kids in its care. But as a family preservation contractor, it won’t actually have custody of kids. It’ll provide counseling, parenting classes and other services to families who are still together in their homes.
DCF attorney Kasey Rogg says the new system is structured to give DCF better oversight over how the outfits it hires spend the money. Rather than simply handing over a flat per-month payment for each contractor and a per-child payment, he said the grants aim to give DCF more accountability and oversight over how the state’s money is spent.
But advocates skeptical of DCF say that while it may mean more oversight of the contractors, it means less oversight of the state agency. Under the old system, contracts were awarded through the Kansas Department of Administration. Under the new system, DCF gets to award and administer the grants directly.
Ross worries that letting DCF directly award the grants could cloud who’s ultimately responsible for a child’s well-being.
The state did award a statewide foster care contract — not a grant — for DCF’s new placement matching system. It will allow DCF to keep a master list of available beds across both its grantees and the smaller child placing agencies that recruit and work with foster families.
That way, DCF can plug in basic details — age, gender, school district, allergies and the like — and find a list of all the beds in the child’s zip code that could take them in, regardless of who manages the bed.
The placement matching system is a bright spot even for child welfare advocates who are skittish about the other incoming changes to foster care and family preservation.
The two current contractors have been accused of placing kids in the homes licensed by their own agency first, before turning them over to other child placing agencies. Both contractors deny they hoard placements that way.
But with a central system with all the available beds logged dictating where kids go, advocates say kids are more likely to end up in homes that are best for them.
Publicly, many people who work with foster kids, foster parents, social workers and providers talk in upbeat tones about how the new grants might help. Privately, that’s replaced by fretting about whether DCF blowing up its system could breed years of chaos, and even worse care for children.
Christie Appelhanz, executive director of the Children’s Alliance of Kansas, an organization representing the current contractors and new grantees, says many are worried.
“People who have been through one of the contractor transitions before, they are definitely terrified — I don’t think is a stretch — about what’s to come,” she said.
University of Kansas social work professor Becci Akin says it’ll likely take 18 to 24 months after the contracts switch in July to tell if the changes are actually improving the lives of kids in peril.
For kids caught in parts of the state where those changes take place, that’s more uncertainty for their already uprooted lives. Pamela Robbins, head of the Kansas Foster and Adoptive Parent Association, remembers trying to adopt one of her daughters during a previous contract change.
In the 18 months it took to finalize her daughter’s adoption, Robbins said she had eight different social workers — including some they met only once.
“Little did we know,” Robbins said.
Social worker turnover has been high already. It’s a high-stress job. Workers deal with high caseloads full of traumatized children and, at times, angry or overwhelmed birth and foster parents.
The task force looking at Kansas’ child welfare system says they’re underpaid, though DCF says Kansas pays on par with the national average.
Akin, the KU professor, says the switch in contractors will bring more uneasiness. Many front-line social workers weren’t around the last time contractors changed in 2013. If they work in areas where the providers are changing, they could get anxious about their job security and switch agencies even before the new provider formally takes over.
Crenshaw, the psychologist who’s worked with foster kids for years, said paying enough to keep seasoned, knowledgeable providers working in the foster care system is the best way to keep kids on track as they move through a chaotic system.
“You can make up any act or grant, or name it anything you can call it — the Fluffy Happy Family World,” he said. “As long as it doesn’t have enough money to pay the people that matter and teach them and supervise them, you’re as doomed this week as you were last week.”
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.
Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.