‘Everybody’ is to blame for Kansas’ foster care problems, says lawmaker who’s been trying to help

“I won’t say that I’m an expert on it at all, but I have studied it, spent a lot of time with different players, different stakeholders, and the little bit that I know is probably more than anyone in the legislature other than Jarrod Ousley,” Rep. Susan Concannon says of the Kansas foster care system and the ranking Democrat on the House Children and Seniors Committee. (Feb. 10, 2021, photo by Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Rep. Susan Concannon tends to get troubling information. Over the past three years, foster parents have gone to her with their problems.

“I have a legal pad full of these stories, and I write out in the margin the name of the caseworkers,” says Concannon, a Republican from Beloit who chairs the House Committee on Children and Seniors. “I will hear the same names over and over again.”

On the one hand, that makes her feel better: Maybe it’s just a few bad apples who are leading to horrors in the state’s foster care system, such as this week’s news of a child with autism who died in the care of adoptive parents.

Autistic boy didn’t have to die, say jilted Kansas foster parents who had to bury him

A couple of weeks ago, it was news of an employee at the state’s largest foster care contractor, Saint Francis Ministries, distributing nude photos of a foster child’s stepmother. A few months ago it was rampant financial mismanagement at Saint Francis. A few years ago, it was 70 kids missing from the system. Then a hundred kids sleeping in offices instead of homes.

The problems go back decades, documented in reports by a task force and by state auditors whose “Foster Care and Adoption in Kansas: Reviewing Various Issues Related to the State’s Foster Care and Adoption System” was so extensive it had to be released in three parts: In July 2016, September 2016 and April 2017.

“There’s 10 years of post-audit reports that show major problems, and they just went in a notebook and sat on a shelf,” Concannon says. “Everyone went, ‘Oh my gosh, look how bad this is,’ and nobody did anything.”

Laura Howard, who took over as secretary of the state’s Department for Children and Families in early 2019, has made progress on many of the issues that didn’t require any action from the Legislature, Concannon says.

But the Legislature needs to do some things. The wellbeing of Kansas foster kids shouldn’t fall on the shoulders of two lawmakers who just happen to care.

“I won’t say that I’m an expert on it at all, but I have studied it, spent a lot of time with different players, different stakeholders, and the little bit that I know is probably more than anyone in the Legislature other than Jarrod Ousley,” Concannon says of the committee’s ranking Democrat, with whom she works closely.

Concannon didn’t set out to be an expert on the state’s dauntingly complex foster care system. After taking office in 2013, she’d been vice chairwoman of the health committee. When she broke with her party and supported Medicaid expansion, it cost her any hope of chairing the health committee. So, she says, she started looking for another place she could have an impact. After Rep. Ron Ryckman was elected speaker, he appointed her to chair the Committee on Children and Seniors in 2019 and increased the committee’s meetings from twice a week to every day.

Energized by this new focus, Concannon began pushing for a foster care oversight committee.

“There was so much frustration with foster care, but the legislators knew nothing,” she says.

Still, the first year she fought for the oversight committee, she says, it “kind of fell on deaf ears.” And last year it was among many legislative initiatives that evaporated when COVID-19 cut short the session. But they at least named an interim committee, which last fall heard two days of anguished testimony from family members, foster parents and others and by overburdened social workers — presumably some of those unfairly stereotyped by others who’ve made Concannon’s list of bad apples.

When her name showed up in Kansas Reflector coverage of those hearings, Concannon started getting phone calls.

“Not just from foster parents, but therapists and people who were watching some of the awful things that are going on from top to bottom,” she says.

She heard stories of intimidation and retribution by case workers. Though there are good guardians ad litem, the state’s low pay doesn’t attract enough of them. And there aren’t enough court-appointed special advocates. To name a few of the problems.

This year, Concannon, Ousley and others co-sponsored a House bill that would have created an Office of the Child Advocate whose role would be to help kids and families. But then the Senate came up with a different bill — one Concannon says would have caused more problems than it helped — and the effort ran into classic Kansas politics, i.e., which politician running for office could be in charge and claim credit.

But at least they passed a bill making the oversight committee permanent. Gov. Laura Kelly signed it on May 21.

That means more hearings with real people telling their stories in public. Maybe that’ll make more people care. And if more people care, maybe more legislators will care.

When she proposed bills that might help, Concannon says, she anticipated that her fellow lawmakers would rightfully have questions, so she came prepared with answers.

“But nobody even knows what questions to ask,” she says. “They know I’m working on it and I guess there’s a level of trust that I’m not doing something I shouldn’t be doing, but there’s just not enough knowledge base.”

They also don’t know what to do when constituents have complaints about foster care, Concannon says:

“I had a woman who had a foster care issue that she took to her legislator. She asked if he could contact someone. But he said, ‘That’s just the way that system is. It’s so big and complicated you can’t do anything about it.’ And he didn’t do anything on their behalf.”

That constituent ultimately found Concannon, who says she was able to help. Other lawmakers just send constituents with problems directly to her.

But that’s not the way any of this should work. Legislators shouldn’t be in the business of solving individual complaints that are actually part of a whole system that needs fixing. Besides, as Concannon notes, any Kansas lawmaker could lose her seat in the next election. Even one who is able to do some good with a raft of institutional knowledge no one else has.

At this point, she concludes, “There’s enough blame to go around to everybody.”

There are problems with the private foster care contractors, to be sure. But maybe the Legislature hasn’t adequately funded the system, or the right pieces of the system.

“Or the fact that we buried our head in the sand and didn’t ask the questions,” Concannon says.

Which is a hell of a way to treat 6,800 Kansas kids.