Support for at-risk Kansas children bogged down by overworked employees, lack of services

Questions asked of substance abuse hair test reliability

Rep. Susan Concannon's Special Committee on Foster Care Oversight heard testimony Tuesday on supports and services, or lack thereof, in child in need of care cases in Kansas. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — During his time serving as a Sedgwick County judge in juvenile court, Kevin Smith saw an overworked and exhausted foster care system leave Kansas children at risk of being harmed.

Smith spent five years as a judge in juvenile court, where at any one time he had between 350 and 400 open child in need of care, or CINC, cases on his docket. During that time, he observed caseworkers with anywhere from 40 to 78 cases at a time.

Judges, law enforcement and others involved in Kansas foster care services on Tuesday shared their view of a slowly improving but still weak and overloaded CINC support system during a hearing of the Special Committee on Foster Care Oversight, chaired by Rep. Susan Concannon, R-Beloit.

In an extreme case, this overloaded system caused one caseworker to quit, adding further pressure on the remaining social workers, Smith said. He said this overworked operation often results in swapping one risk for another.

Smith recalled a situation in which a child was nearly placed in a high-risk situation, despite warnings from a court-appointed special advocate or CASA, due to caseworker overload.

“The CASA told the caseworker multiple times about a situation where the child was being placed at great risk of harm, but they didn’t tell the guardian ad litem or me as the judge,” Smith said. “At the review hearing, the only report that referenced the problem was the CASA’s, and it quite possibly saved that child’s life.”

Smith urged legislators to put more funding toward social work agencies so these important middlemen are not overworked and burned out. 

He also said the system is not prepared to undertake the number of children in need of out-of-home placements. Kansas currently has about 7,600 children in need with just 2,700 homes, Smith said.

Kellie Hogan, a Sedgwick County district judge assigned to the juvenile department, said the lack of placements is just one of many frustrations judges encounter.

Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, D-Wichita, called into question the validity of hair shaft tests for Black women. She said some cases call for extra consideration. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

“In my opinion, drug addiction, unmet mental health, domestic violence and family abuse are among the most important factors resulting in the placement of children in foster care,” Hogan said. “One of the biggest frustrations of many judges are the lack of foster home placements for teenagers and lack of inpatient psychiatric services for our most challenged youth.”

Sedgwick County Sheriff Jeff Easter said the number of abuse-related calls that require law enforcement officers to take a child into custody has decreased in his tenure but that drug-related instances were still common in the area.

Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, D-Wichita, questioned whether substance use tests, specifically hair tests, issued by the independent and state agencies, was providing reliable results in CINC cases. She said some ethnicities and races’ hair does not grow as fast, leaving room for false-positive tests.

She referenced three Black women who had sworn to her they did not smoke marijuana since high school, but all three returned positive during efforts to claim custody of their respective grandchildren.

“They told me to look in the high school yearbook and these particular women, their hair, it was the same length,” Faust-Goudeau said. “Some Black people’s hair just takes longer to grow.”

In one of the cases, Faust-Goudeau said, the woman was able to appeal and the follow-up test showed she did not use marijuana.

Alan Burke, chief executive officer of Kelly Compliance, a company providing drug and alcohol testing services in Kansas, said while not all cases are the same, hair is one of the most reliable ways to discern possible substance abuse.

Alan Burke, chief executive officer of Kelly Compliance, said hair shaft tests are one of the most reliable forms of substance abuse tests. (Kansas Reflector/Noah Taborda)

Even if a person’s hair is growing slowly, Burke said, the companies in charge of analyzing the strands taken return close to a 99.9% accuracy rate on tests.

“No matter how much hair you have or how fast it’s growing, your hair is a permanent record,” Burke said. “If there is drug usage, that hair shaft will contain that record just as well as a hard drive on a computer.”

If the hair strand test does show a positive, there is the opportunity to appeal the test, which will be done at a different facility than the first test, Burke said.

Faust-Goudeau repeatedly questioned the accuracy of Burke’s assertions. While she said she believed the integrity with which the tests were being administered, she is steadfast in her belief a slower hair growth rate could produce a false positive in Black women.

“We’re just going to have to agree to disagree on this one,” Faust-Goudeau said. “If your hair has not grown since high school, they don’t really have enough to test to begin with. In the future, I think we need to have additional consideration around this hair test because we cannot keep denying grandparent their grandchildren that they love.”