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The Kansas foster care watchdog finds that kids still suffer from getting moved around too much

Kansas Child Advocate Kerrie Lonard
Blaise Mesa
/
Kansas News Service
Child Advocate Kerrie Lonard talks to a Legislative committee.

The Division of the Child Advocate was created in 2021 to oversee the child welfare system. Its most recent annual report is the most detailed case breakdown in the young agency's existence.

TOPEKA, Kansas — Kansas foster care employees mishandled a sexual assault investigation, appeared to lie in court documents and cancelled child visits last year because agencies couldn’t transport kids quickly enough.

“The number and type of inaccuracies presented in documents submitted to the court could lead an objective observer to view the misinformation as purposeful or malicious which is in direct violation of the ethics codes for the licensed professions serving child welfare,” the report said.

In some cases, children were almost moved after major surgery, case documents were incomplete or took too long to complete, or agencies failed to place kids with relatives who were available.

Those were among the findings in the first-ever yearly report filed by the Division of the Child Advocate, a young, independent oversight agency designed to protect Kansas foster kids.

In 2022, the office received 165 formal complaints involving 321 children. Some of the most common complaints alleged unprofessional staff behavior and a lack of visitation of children, but not every complaint led to confirmed wrongdoing.

Child Advocate Kerrie Lonard and her team found nine recurring issues plaguing the state’s foster care system. Accountability, parent and children’s rights, workforce retention and training, and placement stability were key among them.

Placement stability simply means the amount of times a child moved to a new location. Kansas children moved an average of 7.4 times per 1,000 days, as of Oct. 2022. Federal standards want no more than 4.44 moves in that time.

Too many moves can leave children and case workers unprepared. In one case, a child was receiving community services at one placement, they were moved, and it took two months before those same services were restarted at their next site.

The Department for Children and Families released a statement pledging to work with the child advocate.

“Its work in identifying opportunities for improvement in the child welfare system has proven to be invaluable to DCF,” the statement said. “The advocate’s feedback provides an important perspective into the agency’s policies and procedures which allows for changes or adjustments to better serve Kansas families.”

The office was created in Oct. 2021.

“This year has been a culmination of great progress, accomplishments, challenges, and growth,” Lonard said in a written message in the report. “A year in review highlights an amazing twelve months for KDCA and Kansas children and families, but one that entails obstacles, loss, celebrations, and significant learning.”

The report called for faster action on complaints. Lonard’s office has 76 open investigations and 16 cases that were wrapped up. The complaints are managed by a team of five: three case investigators, one office administrator and Lonard.

In September, Lonard told lawmakers caseloads in the early months of the office were “unsustainable,” but given the benefit of time, she said, they would be easier to manage.

Since that meeting, lawmakers have tacked on additional work, giving her office the lead on a foster parent exit survey. The need for it came after 500 foster parents left the foster care system and the state couldn’t explain the exodus.

State Rep. Susan Concannon, chair of the Child Welfare and Foster Care committee, said she’s worried about specific cases listed in the report.

“It just makes you wonder how many more are out there,” she said.

Concannon said the office is another tool at the state’s disposal to keep foster care accountable while building trust in the system.

“I heard somebody the other day refer to the foster care system as a beast. It’s a beast, it’s big, and it’s very fragmented and it doesn’t always connect together,” Concannon said.

She said Statehouse committees looking at the issue gives Kansans hope.

“There is a level of trust that we're going to kind of get to the bottom of things,” she said.

Kansans who have dealt with the Division of the Child Advocate can contact Blaise Mesa.

He reports on criminal justice and social services for the Kansas News Service in Topeka. You can follow him on Twitter @Blaise_Mesa or email him at blaise@kcur.org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. 

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

As a criminal justice and social service reporter, it's my job to ensure the systems designed to help people are working as intended. Thousands of Kansans deal with the criminal justice or foster care systems each day. I strive to hold all agencies and departments accountable for the work they are doing. blaise@kcur.org.