Before Laura Kelly took over as governor, the Kansas Department for Children and Families overhauled which private companies would manage its child welfare system, and how the department would oversee their work.
Kelly put the brakes on that whole plan in December.
On Thursday, she announced she’d be rolling back major parts of the changes. She canceled grants with two companies and said the state would renegotiate grants with three companies.
The main child welfare programs that DCF outsources fall into two categories: services to kids who have been removed from their homes, and programs aimed to help keep kids safely with their families.
The grants for that family preservation have been scrapped entirely. DCF Secretary Laura Howard said she had concerns about how they were awarded. One company received three regions despite not bidding on one of the regions, and receiving far lower scores in the other two regions than any other company reviewed by the agency.
The Kansas City Star reported Wednesday that that company was Eckerd Connects and that it received the grants because it had underbid its competitors.
Howard said DCF will change the family preservation grants — mostly to take advantage of federal funding from the Family First Preservation Services Act — and put out a new call for applicants.
She said many bidders “just didn’t come to the table” because the grant expectations were higher than was feasible with the amount of money DCF was looking to spend.
“We do need to align outcomes and money,” she said.
In the meantime, the two current family preservation contractors, KVC Kansas and St. Francis Community Services, will have their contracts extended by six months to the end of 2019.
Howard said she didn’t see the same mismatch of grants being awarded to low-scoring applicants on the foster care side. So those grants will just be renegotiated, not scrapped and rebid. DCF is still extending the current foster care contracts — also with KVC and St. Francis — but only by three months.
Bringing in oversight
When the new grant system was announced, then-DCF Secretary Gina Meier-Hummel promised it would improve accountability and oversight. She said it would also offer more transparency into who was tasked with taking care of kids, and how.
But many lawmakers and child welfare advocates don’t think she delivered.
Rather than going through a contract bid process with the Department of Administration — which has previously evaluated companies’ bids, scored them, and awarded contracts — DCF’s new grant process allowed them to pick the companies in-house without that oversight.
The idea was to let the department that knew child welfare best pick the best child welfare providers.
Instead, foster care watchers were flummoxed when grants were awarded to Eckerd Connects. It had many problems familiar to Kansas, including kids sleeping in offices and bouncing from home to home, in its Florida foster care operations. Child welfare advocates were even more perplexed when the Star revealed Eckerd got the grants despite low scores.
“There needs to be a full accounting,” said Benet Magnuson, head of the nonprofit advocacy organization Kansas Appleseed. “I’m encouraged to see the governor seems determined to shine a light on what happened, and why.”
Kelly and Howard are bringing the Department of Administration back into the mix. That department, not DCF, will put out the call for new family preservation providers. And representatives from that department will join DCF staff during renegotiations of the foster care grants.
Why does it matter?
The state is obligated to provide care and services to foster kids in its custody, even when it has outsourced those responsibilities to private companies. Those services aren’t supposed to disappear or get delayed because of who’s handling them.
But some of the high-profile problems at DCF show its struggles. Children have slept in offices, been bounced from home to home, struggled to access needed mental health services and even died from abuse despite calls into the state hotline warning that they were at risk.
The grant system proposed by the previous DCF administration was meant to give DCF more control over the companies it was paying to meet care for children. It was also intended to bring more companies to the table with the hope that more players would mean more resources, more ideas, and better outcomes.
The new system would also mean multiple changes at once — to which companies handled foster care and family preservation, as well as which providers would be responsible for various regions of Kansas. Transitions are chaotic, raising fears about what that upheaval would mean for children already in crisis.
Child welfare advocates are quick to add that that doesn’t mean changes should never be made. In a privatized system, DCF’s ability to reduce the role of or outright drop a private company is one of its tools to make sure that a company delivers on its obligations to kids.
And some were hoping for change, even if it did mean disruption.
Some foster parents are frustrated that they can’t get the services they need from current contractors. Though some were encouraged that Kelly’s administration was taking a hard look at who had been awarded grants, putting the grants on pause left them in limbo about whether changes would be made.
Many advocates, lawmakers and other child welfare observers questioned the necessity of so much transition at once — and whether the changes would actually make foster kids’ experiences in the system any better.
Joni Hiatt, director of Kansas programs for the foster care advocacy group FosterAdopt Connect, says she wasn’t surprised by reports that Eckerd had been chosen over groups that were deemed more qualified by the teams who reviewed family preservation proposals.
“To find out that this was how these contracts were chosen,” she said, “that’s so disappointing in so many ways.”
Putting the grants on hold left foster and birth parents in regions where new companies had been awarded grants in a holding pattern. They had to wait to see if they would have the same company handling their kids’ cases, or if it would change.
With the Kelly administration’s decision to extend out the current contracts for a little while longer, and renegotiate foster care and rebid family preservation, many are hopeful for better outcomes. But that process will take time.
“Children, their birth families, foster and adoptive parents,” Hiatt said, “they’re going to have to wait that much longer to access quality services and promised accountability.”
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. Follow 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.