Kansas’ new governor wants to fix the state’s foster care. Fast.
Laura Kelly isn’t the first governor to highlight a crisis in child welfare, or to inject cash into the Department for Children and Families.
Expectations run high for Kelly, who sat on a task force examining the child welfare system for more than a year. She’s made fixing foster care a high priority — it was one of just three topics she homed in on in her State of the State address last week.
But she’s hemmed in by some of the approaches she’s been handed, such as new grants to manage child welfare that she called “essentially no-bid contracts” and a lawsuit alleging Kansas rendered some of its foster children “effectively homeless.”
Here are five things to watch as Kelly works to make her mark in child welfare:
1) The high number of kids in the system
There were 7,300 kids in foster care in Kansas at the end of December. That’s an increase of more than 40 percent since 2012. The stress of so many kids in the system is straining mental health services, social worker caseloads and the state’s overall ability to adequately provide beds for the children in its custody.
Two main factors drive the increase: more kids in, and more time to get them out.
To help address the first, Kelly’s asked for money from the Legislature to fund more child abuse investigator positions and to draw down federal money for services that keep struggling families safely together.
Kelly wants money for about 26 new investigators.
Laura Howard, Kelly’s new head of the Department for Children and Families, said social workers field two or three times the recommended number of cases in some parts of the state. That makes it harder for investigators to catch problems or to take the time to connect families to community resources that could allow kids to stay in their home.
“Turnover is always an issue,” Howard said. “But it’s really been higher and more exacerbated in the last few years with those extensively high caseloads.”
Kelly also wants Kansas to put up more money for a federal matching program geared at keeping families out of the foster care system in the first place.
After DCF requested $4 million in state funds to go toward the Family First Prevention Services Act, child welfare advocates wrote an open letter asking for $30 million. Kelly isn’t going that far, but she has upped the Family First request to $7.4 million in this year’s budget and nearly $10 million next year.
Christie Appelhanz, who leads the organization that drafted the open letter, said that’s a start.
“We’re definitely headed in the right direction,” she said. “We’re not where we think we need to be just yet.”
Even if things improve on the front end, bringing down the number of overall kids in care will require getting kids out of the system and into permanent homes more quickly.
2) Whether DCF can recruit and retain enough social workers
Lawmakers are already skeptical DCF can find enough social workers to fill investigative jobs. Last year, DCF rolled back social work licensing requirements for some of its investigative positions. Officials said they had too many vacancies and not enough social workers to fill them.
Howard said she hasn’t looked yet at how the agency will fill 26 positions. But Becky Fast, head of the Kansas chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, said Kansas’ number of social work graduates and licensed social workers grows every year. It’s just a matter of convincing them to work for an agency experiencing a very public crisis.
“When I speak at colleges across the state, at least half the bachelor students raise their hands and want to work with children and families,” said Fast. “But they want to work in a system where they receive training, support and supervision.”
3) Who’s going to manage Kansas foster care moving forward
In November, then-DCF secretary Gina Meier-Hummel announced grants to five companies to manage foster care and family preservation.
The grants were awarded through a different process than the contract system that’s dictated Kansas child welfare since the state privatized foster care in the 1990s. State contracts go through the Department of Administration, but the new grants were scored and awarded directly through DCF.
When Kelly announced Howard as her pick to run DCF, Kelly also said she was putting those grants on hold.
Advocates have also raised concerns about one of the family preservation providers, Eckerd Connects It’s has drawn headlines over its foster care management in Florida that echo Kansas’ problems — kids sleeping in offices or moved night-to-night, kids skipping school, children harmed while in state custody.
With the current contracts set to run out at the end of June, Kelly and Howard don’t have much time to decide how to move forward with foster care. Howard said she doesn’t know yet what the agency will do about the grants, but she’s been carefully reviewing them.
4) What happens with the class-action lawsuit alleging Kansas violated its foster kids’ civil rights
In November, three organizations filed a class-action lawsuit contending Kansas violates foster children’s civil rights by moving them too often, adding to their trauma and restricting their access to necessary mental health treatment.
Some of the children described in the suit were moved more than 100 times during their stints in foster care, often from one one-night placement to the next.
The organizations sued then-governor Jeff Colyer and the then-heads of DCF, the Department for Aging and Disability Services and the Department of Health and Environment. With the governor’s office and the agencies turned over to new leadership, the lawsuit will soon transfer to Kelly, Howard and KDHE interim secretary Lee Norman.
The organizations suing aren’t asking for a payout. Their lawsuit calls for the agencies to fix gaps in mental health services and the churning of kids through short-term homes.
With the lawsuit landing in her lap, Kelly is under legal and political pressure to deliver the foster care fixes she’s called for.
5) What the numbers do — and don’t — tell us about whether foster care is improving
Although the number of kids sleeping in contractors’ offices has dropped substantially since its peak last spring — as of December, DCF officials said there had been no kids spending their nights in offices for months — advocates want to make sure improvements in one area aren’t leading to problems in another.
Appelhanz pointed to the lawsuit’s allegation of back-to-back single-night placements as one reason to be wary of better numbers.
“No one wants kids sleeping in offices,” said Appelhanz. “But moving them from sleeping in offices to repeated one-night placements? That’s not a win.”
Howard said she’ll also be measuring success based on the overall number of kids in care and whether they’re getting to permanent homes in a timely manner. She’s also trying to bring DCF up to federal standards for child welfare — standards by which the agency has previously fallen short.
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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