Story by Nomin Ujiyediin
The long-troubled foster care system in Kansas got hit with yet another complication over the last year.
Pandemic complications came on top of ongoing fixes mandated by a class-action settlement and simmering pressure to find more homes for children in crisis.
The state’s foster care providers are also navigating the terms of a legal settlement finalized early this year. The agreement is the result of a class-action lawsuit filed against the state by child welfare advocates who alleged the state had violated foster children’s rights by housing them in offices and hotels, moving them between different homes too often and not providing mental health treatment quickly enough.
The Kansas Department for Children and Families says the state updated its contracts with its foster care providers and mental health centers to meet the terms of the settlement.
Foster care providers say they’re working to meet those terms as well.
But advocates for foster children and families say the state has a long way to go before all the children in its care are safe and thriving.
“We are continually contacted by people in the system — caseworkers, parents, foster parents. There are still problems with the system,” said lawyer Teresa Woody, of Kansas Appleseed, one of the advocacy groups that sued the state. “And the goals of the settlement are a long way from being met at this point.”
Adjusting to the pandemic
The four private companies hired by the state to look after foster children — Saint Francis Ministries, KVC Kansas, Cornerstones of Care and TFI — have handed out masks and thermometers to their workers and to families that take in foster kids. They’ve given computers and Wi-Fi hotspots to families so children can attend online classes. And they’ve moved home visits and therapy back and forth between virtual and in-person settings.
“We have to be flexible in adapting to whatever feels right for that family or for that child,” said Denise Cross, the CEO of Cornerstones of Care, which provides foster care services in northeastern Kansas. “The safety of our team members and our children and our families, that’s got to be our top priority.”
Contractors say that while some children and families have struggled to attend school or therapy over video during the past year, others have felt more comfortable connecting online.
“Some kids do really well virtually, and have actually been able to engage in new ways,” said Linda Bass, president of KVC Kansas. “Younger children, as you might suspect, have a hard time engaging on video.”
Woody, of Kansas Appleseed, said those efforts aren’t enough to keep children, families and employees safe. She said many parents have told the organization that children were not being tested for the coronavirus before moving to new homes.
“That’s a risk to foster parents. It’s a risk to the kids,” she said. “It’s a risk to caseworkers. It’s a risk to everyone.”
KVC Kansas, Saint Francis Ministries and TFI said they do not test children unless they are showing symptoms. The limited availability of COVID-19 tests has made it hard to test children broadly, said Saint Francis spokeswoman Morgan Rothenberger.
The high school graduation rate of foster children has also dropped over the course of the pandemic, Woody said. In fiscal year 2019, 39% of children who aged out of the Kansas foster system were high school graduates. In fiscal year 2020, which ended in June 2020, 31% were graduates. By December 2020, only 16% of children who aged out of foster care had earned diplomas.
Tara Wallace, a therapist who works with foster children, said some of her clients still did not have the electronic devices or internet speeds they needed to attend online classes or therapy sessions.
“Some students can’t get connected at the same speed,” she said. “Some students can get connected, but if someone else gets on, they get kicked off.”
Troubles at Saint Francis
Saint Francis Ministries, one of the state’s largest foster care providers, has been facing extra challenges, reported by nonprofit news site the Kansas Reflector. Executives at Saint Francis reportedly spent thousands of dollars on luxury purchases like travel and sports tickets. The reported mismanagement led the organization to cut ties with top leaders. The state is auditing the organization’s finances.
Saint Francis recently renegotiated its contract with the state of Nebraska after revealing it was short millions of dollars to provide child welfare services.
Saint Francis interim CEO William Clark declined to be interviewed, but he said in an email that the organization has hired a compliance officer and is continuing to take care of children.
“Saint Francis Ministries’ leaders and board of directors have taken multiple steps to ensure a stable future for the organization,” Clark said. “Efforts include changing processes and procedures to be more accountable.”
The Department for Children and Families announced in February that the state had updated its contract with Saint Francis. The organization is now required to provide regular financial updates to the state, including a new business plan and a plan for how to use any unspent state money on foster care services.
Class-action lawsuit settlement
Kansas has updated all of its contracts with foster care providers and community mental health centers. The move will help ensure the state can meet the terms of the class-action lawsuit settlement finalized earlier this year, said Laura Howard, secretary of the Department for Children and Families and Kansas Department of Aging and Disability Services.
“There’s a whole series of practice improvements and outcomes that will be monitored over the coming years,” Howard said. “We’re very, very pleased with the settlement.”
The settlement requires the state to stop housing foster children in offices, hotels and other places that are not homes. It also requires the state to stop moving children between different placements every night, and to provide mental health treatment and assessments for children in a more timely manner.
The state recently hired Beacon Health Options to provide mental health services to families and children in crisis, another requirement of the settlement.
The foster care providers said they were hiring more staff and offering more support to families to ensure that children are less likely to “disrupt,” or leave a foster home. They also said they’re using new strategies to place children with their own relatives.
Records show foster children have moved less frequently during the pandemic, but it’s still higher than the standard of 4.44 moves per 1,000 days set by the settlement. The number of children in foster care decreased from about 7,300 in March 2020 to about 6,800 in December 2020.
Meanwhile, the average number of months children spent in foster care increased to 24 in fiscal year 2021. The percentage of children re-entering foster care within 12 months of leaving the system has increased slightly over the past two years, and is still above performance standards.
Some of these metrics show improvements in the system, but they still show that children could be having negative experiences during their time in foster care, said Quinn Ried, a policy research analyst at Kansas Appleseed.
“There’s lots of research that shows any time that kids move from placement to placement, that it’s a traumatic experience for them,” he said. Returning to the system after leaving it, “is also creating probably even greater trauma.”
Ried added that Kansas’s foster care system still has racial disparities, with black children entering the system at about two times the rate of white children.
Kansas Appleseed and other child welfare advocacy groups have pushed the state to hire a child advocate, a neutral observer who can oversee the foster care system and hold it accountable. The idea was tabled during previous legislative sessions, but lawmakers have proposed it again this year.
“It’s a place for individuals to go with concerns or problems within the foster system,” Woody said. “The settlement agreement is not set up to deal with individual … issues.”
Wallace, the therapist, said an advocate could help eliminate inefficiencies in the system by making sure families are involved in programs that they actually need, rather than one-size-fits-all treatments.
“It would be so helpful if there was an entity that was not connected to any aspect of the child welfare system,” she said. “That individual would be able to look at situations and families and say, ‘This family was connected to the foster care system because of a truancy issue. Why does this family need to attend drug and alcohol classes? That’s a waste of time and money and resources.’”
Nomin Ujiyediin reports on criminal justice and social welfare for the Kansas News Service. Follow her on Twitter @NominUJ. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of Kansas Public Radio, KCUR, 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.