by Peggy Lowe, KCUR Radio for the Kansas News Service
Parents of kids who are in the Kansas foster care system described it Saturday as chaotic, deceptive and traumatizing to children.
About two dozen people rallied on the steps of the statehouse in Topeka, calling on lawmakers to bring more accountability to the Kansas Department for Children and Families, an agency long under fire for losing kids and housing them in offices.
Shelley Owens of Topeka came to the protest hoping to find help for her three grandchildren, who were taken from her and her husband recently without warning. The children, ages 1, 2 and 10, were placed in Kansas City, Kansas, but Owens said she rarely sees them because of DCF’s “miscommunication, abuse of power and lies.”
“It’s been traumatic,” Owens said. “They said they’d help us but they have lied to us from the beginning.”
The protest was organized by parents after a series of stories by KCUR and the Topeka Capital-Journal brought to light the dramatic increase in children added to the state foster care system after former Republican Gov. Sam Brownback reduced aid for poverty programs.
Asked for comment about the protest, DCF spokesman Mike Deines said the agency "continues to focus on our efforts to strengthen the system and work with our partners to develop effective supports for youth and families."
Kansas faces a lawsuit filed by Kansas Appleseed, Children Rights and the National Center for Youth Law alleging civil rights violations. The state’s 7,500 foster children are often moved anywhere from 30 to 100 times, forcing them to “couch surf” or to stay unsupervised in “kid’s zones” in contractors’ offices, said Christina Ostmeyer of Kansas Appleseed.
“Bad things happen to these kids while they are in the state’s custody,” she said. “We are ripping childhood from these children who are in our state’s custody.”
Protesters said they will next meet inside the statehouse in January when lawmakers are in session. They also called on Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democrat, to make systematic changes to the foster care system, reminding her that she had said it was one of her top priorities.
Last month's joint investigation found that the volume of children in the Kansas foster care system swelled from 5,214 in fiscal year 2011 when Brownback took office, to 7,484 in July, a 43.5% increase. The rate of runaways surged as the growing number of kids in foster care overwhelmed child placement contractors. The joint investigation also revealed that at least 13 girls had run away from foster care and got trapped in sex trafficking.
Parents on Saturday recounted long stories of problems with DCF and its two private foster care providers, KVC Kansas and St. Francis Community Services. Heidi Beal, a Butler County woman who said she advocates for families who have lost custody of their children, said the system doesn’t need more money.
“What they need to do is stop throwing a broad net and pulling children into the system who do not need to be in the system,” she said.
Peggy Lowe is a reporter at KCUR and is on Twitter at @peggylowe.