A Kansas House committee voted without dissent today (TUE) to establish a new task force to improve the state's foster care system. Foster parents, law enforcement, and court officials have all been testifying that they struggle to get information and services for children in state custody. That, plus high caseloads and turnover among social workers has meant that more Kansas children are waiting to go home or be adopted. Republican Linda Gallagher, Vice Chair of the Children and Seniors Committee, says the task force would be given latitude to find legislative or regulatory solutions.
The Kansas Department for Children and Families, which administers the foster care system, contends that it already answers to multiple oversight committees. The department is concerned that it could be difficult to allocate the resources needed to respond to yet another task force.
Legislators Seek Plan to Improve Kansas Foster Care System
By Meg Wingerter, Kansas News Service
Kansas has plenty of reports on problems in its foster care system but needs a plan to fix them, according to members of a House committee.
The House Children and Seniors Committee voted today (TUE) to create a foster care task force that will present a plan for improvements to the foster care system by January. Representative Jarrod Ousley, a Merriam Democrat, said the state needs to do more than study the foster care system. “This task force is not for oversight. It’s for corrective action,” he said.
Since 2014, a record number of Kansas children have entered the foster care system. At the end of January, more than 6,800 children were in the state’s custody.
The Kansas Department for Children and Families oversees the system, which faced some criticism from the Legislature’s independent auditing team last summer. The committee heard testimony over several weeks about problems in the state’s system from foster parents, law enforcement, court officials and child welfare advocates. Those issues include difficulty getting accurate information about children, delays for mental health care and concerns that social workers had too many cases to handle.
In addition to those issues, the committee wants the task force to examine:
• The number of children placed in their home county, which can make it easier to visit family and continue school activities.
• How long children stayed in foster care.
• The number of children, if any, who were mistreated while in foster care.
• If any children were arrested after leaving foster care.
• How much school children in foster care missed.
The task force also will examine requirements for foster parents, the legislative audit and existing reports by DCF and the two private contractors that operate the state’s foster care system: KVC Behavioral Healthcare and Saint Francis Community Services.
Kathy Armstrong, assistant general counsel for prevention and protection services at DCF, said the department is neutral on establishing a task force. DCF’s foster care system already has oversight by federal agencies, Legislative Post Audit, the Kansas Attorney General’s Office and 13 task forces, work groups or boards, she said. “It must be noted that an additional task force may result in duplication and diminished efficiency in light of all federal and state agency and court oversight of the child welfare system already in place,” she said in written testimony. Armstrong also raised concerns that DCF might have to use resources to compile data for the task force, but she said the department “supports the concept of accountability and review.”
Representative Mary Martha Good, an El Dorado Republican, raised concerns about whether the task force would be “redundant” because other legislative committees oversee the foster care system. She voted for it, despite those concerns, because she said a corrective action plan would be valuable to the Legislature next year.
The committee dropped the original task force bill, House Bill 2019, and put its contents into Senate Bill 126, which has to do with child care facilities. Ousley said the legislative maneuver will prevent the task force measure from getting bogged down. Senate leaders approve of the plan but have too many bills to consider this session, he said. The Senate already passed SB 126, so the task force measure could head straight to Governor Sam Brownback if the House passes the new version and the Senate concurs, said Representative Linda Gallagher, a Lenexa Republican.
The task force bill is the Children and Seniors Committee’s “signature” achievement this session, Gallagher said. She said the bill gives the task force members latitude to suggest legislation, regulatory changes and other ways to improve foster care outcomes. “So far, what we’ve heard has been of great concern. There are a number of problems in the system that we think need to be addressed,” she said.
The 18-member task force would have 12 legislators and six people appointed by legislative leaders. The fiscal note estimated the task force would cost about $52,000 annually. Most of that money would go toward reimbursing legislators on the committee for mileage and assorted expenses.
Meg Wingerter is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR Radio, Kansas Public Radio and KMUW Radio covering health, education and politics in Kansas. You can reach her on Twitter @MegWingerter.