A state senator who’s proposing a controversial overhaul of the state’s foster care system said on Thursday that he’s decided not to propose paying some foster parents “significantly higher” rates if they meet certain conditions, such as being husband and wife and barring tobacco or alcohol from their home.
“My suggestion is that we change the bill and remove the payment part completely, and expect them to volunteer,” said Sen. Forrest Knox, a Republican from Altoona.
Knox, testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee, was referring to provisions in Senate Bill 158, a measure he introduced earlier this week.
On Wednesday, the Division of the Budget attached a fiscal note to the bill, letting legislators know that federal regulations likely would not allow a two-tier payment system and the federal government could withhold more than $25 million in foster care support.
Knox said he disagreed with the budget office’s assessment.
“All of us up here know that fiscal notes are based on assumptions,” he said. “My assumption was that this would be a whole different program and would not fall under” the federal restrictions.
Still, Knox said he would pull the rate-increase section of the bill.
He did not back away from provisions in the bill that establish a new tier of foster parents, called CARE families. These families would have sole discretion over whether to home-school children in their care and then receive from the state “an amount not to exceed the statewide average state aid per pupil.”
Currently, the average state aid payment to school districts is $3,838 per student per school year.
To become a CARE family, foster parents would have to:
- Be “a husband-and-wife team married for at least seven years, in a faithful, loving and caring relationship and with no sexual relations outside of the marriage.”
- Have one parent not employed outside the home.
- Bar use of tobacco, liquor, beer and illicit drugs in their home.
- Participate in a “social group larger than the family that meets regularly, preferably at least weekly.”
Knox said the social group requirement wasn’t meant to require families to attend church; instead, it’s aimed at guarding against isolation of foster families.
By meeting the criteria spelled out in the bill, CARE families would be subject to less regulation from the state than other foster parents.
Knox and his wife, Renee, have nine biological children, two of whom still live at home. The couple adopted four brothers — then ages 5, 7, 8 and 13 — four years ago after caring for them for two years as foster parents.
Many foster families drop out of the system, Knox said, after realizing they have little say in what happens in the children’s lives, having to comply with rules and regulations that most people “would perceive to be ridiculous” and “being treated like babysitters” within a system that sees them as “just doing it for the money.”
Besides Knox, no one else testified for or against the bill.
Department for Children and Families Secretary Phyllis Gilmore submitted written testimony in which she said that while “the ideal foster home consists of a married couple,” it’s not always an option.
Many of the bill’s provisions, she said, would need to be “vetted” to guard against violating federal regulations.
Also submitting written testimony were Wichita area social workers Germaine Hall and Connie Mayes; Megan Monsour, a Wichita adoption attorney, and JoVoli Clark, a former foster parent from LeRoy who adopted her 3-year-old foster child in July.
Clark expressed support for SB 158, while the others oppose the bill.
Wendy Flickinger runs the Family Advisory Council, a Hutchinson-based program that counsels parents whose children are in foster care.
She said she opposes SB 158 because foster homes ought to be exposed to more, rather than less, oversight.
“My concern with this is whether it’s really about doing what’s best for the child,” she said. “Because if it is, you’d want there to more monitoring of what’s going on in these homes, not less. And besides, who is it that we think is going to monitor whether somebody is drinking or not drinking?”
Saundra Hiller, executive director with the Kansas Foster and Adoptive Parent Association, said she would oppose holding foster parents and CARE families to different sets of standards.
“What Senator Knox is saying is true: Foster parents are held to a higher standard than the rest of society, and there are some people who find that out and decide not to do it,” she said. “But you know what? We should be held to a higher standard, because these are our children.”
The committee is expected to consider SB 158 next week.
In the past year, record and near-record numbers of children have entered the state’s foster care system.
In October 2014, there were 6,215 children living in Kansas foster homes. That’s the most in state history and 303 more than in October 2013, 665 more than in October 2012 and 964 more than in October 2011.
Currently, Kansas has 2,761 foster homes. That’s 100 more than last year and 302 more than in 2013.
During a recent appearance before the House Social Services Budget Committee, Gilmore said the increases were “a mystery” and most likely driven by many factors.
Dave Ranney is a reporter for KHI News Service in Topeka, a partner in the Heartland Health Monitor team.