Josh Luthi, auditor with the Kansas Legislature, said a new report showed Black children were overrepresented in the state’s foster care system and Black and American Indian children were less likely than white children to be reunified with their parents. (Screen capture/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — A new report by state auditors confirmed overrepresentation of Black children in Kansas foster care and that Black and American Indian children in the system were less likely than white children to be reunified with their parents.
Auditors told Kansas legislators Tuesday that Black individuals represented 6% of the state’s population in 2019, but accounted for 12% of the children in foster care. White people made up 86% of the state population, but only 78% of kids in foster care.
Josh Luthi, an auditor working for the legislative auditing division, told a joint House and Senate committee higher levels of poverty and greater involvement in social service programs among Black families could lead to more exposure to people required by law to report suspected child abuse or neglect. Another possibility is racial bias leads people to more aggressively raise potential problems in Black families, the audit said.
“We were already working on some of these things, in particular the race issue and disproportionality,” said Melinda Kline, deputy director of permanency at the Kansas Department for Children and Families.
DCF has responsibility for the 6,500 children in foster care. The agency employs private contractors — Cornerstones of Care, KVC Kansas, Saint Francis Ministries and TFI — to provide services to foster care families.
“TFI supports the concerns about racial disparities as outlined in the written audit,” said Ashley Marple, vice president of performance and risk management at TFI.
In Kansas, district courts decide whether a child should be declared in need of care and placed in foster care under custody of DCF. The assumed preference is for children in foster care to be eventually reunited with parents. Some children end up adopted or under care of someone assuming guardianship rights. Another portion of foster children reach emancipation age, run away or die, and transfer to control of the state Department of Corrections or tribal courts.
Rep. Kristey Williams, an Augusta Republican and chairwoman of the Legislature’s audit committee, said she was interested in determining whether children in foster care more frequently came from a one- or two-parent households. Auditors didn’t look at that question, but Williams said she was convinced single-parent homes placed children in a higher risk category.
Auditors discovered in a survey of parents with children in foster care there was a belief DCF mishandled investigations, caseworkers didn’t respond to telephone calls or were otherwise uncommunicative, turnover among caseworkers was high and scheduling of mental health evaluations and other appointments took months.
“We are aware that we’ve had tremendous turnover within the DCF and limited resources within the DCF,” said Rep. Tom Burroughs, a Democrat from Kansas City, Kansas, on the audit committee.
The audit sought to determine whether outcomes for children in foster care varied based on age, race, ethnicity or sex. Auditors sought answers by reviewing 28,000 cases of children entering or exiting foster care from 2012 to 2020. Among these cases, more than 17,000 ended in reunification and 20% or 5,500 led to adoption.
Research by auditors indicated being Black or American Indian reduced a child’s odds of reunifying with their parents by about 8% and 25%, respectively. When compared to white children, however, being Black or Asian didn’t affect a child’s odds of being adopted. Black and Native American children in Kansas were more likely to reach emancipation age relative to white children in foster care.
In terms of ethnicity, auditors reported Hispanic children in foster care had similar outcomes to non-Hispanic children. Hispanic children had a reunification rate of 66%, while 62% of non-Hispanic children were reunified. Non-Hispanic children were adopted at a rate of 20%, but Hispanic children had an adoption rate of 17%.
The audit indicated the older a child when removed from home the less likely that person would be reunified or adopted. The study didn’t identify a meaningful difference in unification or adoption between male and female children.
Auditors weighed whether remedial tasks written into foster-care plans to inspire reunification of families appeared reasonable and relevant. This question involved review of case files for 48 foster children from fiscal years 2016 to 2020. The selection of cases was nonrandom, which meant findings of auditors couldn’t be projected to the thousands of foster care cases existing during that period of time.
DCF foster care staff review case plans for compliance with DCF policies and federal rules, but don’t check whether tasks related to reunification were reasonable and relevant.
Auditors took into consideration 670 tasks required of parents or guardians attempting to be reunited with their children. The analysis determined 10%, or about 70, were unreasonable because they had no application to conditions associated with the children in foster care.
“If you go too far in assigning parents tasks,” said Luthi, the state auditor, “you might place an undue burden on them and either limit or make it impossible for them to reunify with their kids. If you don’t go far enough with assignment parents tasks, then you might end up reintegrating a child into a home that isn’t safe or in a position where they’re going to re-enter the foster care system.”
The tasks categorized as unreasonable or irrelevant didn’t appear to stop families from reunifying in the cases reviewed, auditors said.
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