DCF secretary positions Kansas foster care system for progress, looks for autism answers

By: - August 9, 2021 9:30 am
Laura Howard, secretary of the Kansas Department for Children and Families, . (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Laura Howard, secretary of the Kansas Department for Children and Families, . (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Laura Howard is eager to point out improvements made in the Kansas foster care system following her return to state government in January 2019.

She is working toward additional progress.

The secretary of the Department for Children and Families says she is launching an autism work group, focusing on prevention programs, rolling out 24-7 mobile crisis services, enlisting the help of community-level organizations and educators, and reducing the rate at which children move from home to home.

In an interview for the Kansas Reflector podcast, Howard recalled the challenges she inherited when Gov. Laura Kelly selected her to lead two agencies — DCF and the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services. Howard had worked in the state’s social services arena from 1997 to 2011 when those agencies were combined under a different name.

When she returned two and a half years ago, she took control of a unstable system wrecked by unprecedented numbers of children in state custody. The problems were documented in numerous news reports about deaths and abuse, missing kids, human trafficking, children sleeping in office spaces, poor graduation rates, and funding secretly withheld from contractors.

“Too many kids in care, a system in a lot of chaos, kids moving around not finding stability, not very many placements with relatives, and frankly not very many other resources in the prevention realm to support families in Kansas,” Howard said. “So that was really the picture walking in.”

Among the improvements made on her watch: The rate at which children in the Kansas foster care system move from one home to another has dropped from an average of 9.9 moves per 1,000 days to 5.1 moves. The number of kids in state custody has declined from 7,600 to 6,800. The number of foster kids staying with relatives has increased from 30% to 42%. Fewer foster kids are missing, and fewer are running from custody more than once.

Federal authorities last month conducted a human trafficking operation in which they focused on missing foster kids across the country, Howard said, and noticed a difference in Kansas.

“One of the federal agents commented on how much change he saw in terms of the number of youths missing from care and what a different operation it looked like today than two or three years ago,” Howard said.

Howard said a lot of progress has been made possible by the Family First Prevention Services Act. The Legislature in 2019 agreed to invest matching funds in the federal program to provide access to programs designed to prevent children from entering foster care. That includes parental skill-building contracts in every county, substance use services, and support for relatives who can help with a child.

So far, 89% of the children referred to Family First programs have not entered foster care.

“That’s about 1,500 youths and families in the state that were able to receive the supports they need to safely care for those kids at home,” Howard said.

Still, the improvements have been tempered by lingering challenges.

The state in January settled a lawsuit from Kansas Appleseed regarding the instability of the foster care system. The terms require Kansas to meet the federal standard for placement stability — 4.4 moves per 1,100 days — within four years. The state also has to provide mental health assessments without delay when children enter the foster care system.

Kansas Reflector has reported on financial misconduct at the state’s largest foster care provider, Saint Francis Ministries, and the systemic failure to connect autistic foster children with the care they need.

Howard said her agency is nearing completion of an audit of Saint Francis finances, and reached an agreement with the organization to repay $9.4 million in state funds.

“We are getting very close to the final stages of that,” Howard said. “We’re not going to see things of great magnitude that show that Kansas funds were misutilized. So I’m really glad to see that.”

Howard asked the Kansas Health Institute to help facilitate a work group to address concerns identified in Kansas Reflector reporting on autism services. The work group will involve parents, foster parents, youths and service providers, Howard said.

Among the questions they will be asked to answer: Where does the state need revenue? What are innovative ways to expand the workforce? What can be done administratively. Who can the state partner with at educational institutions to make progress? How can they make sure foster parents are equipped with training they need?

This issue has been “brewing for a number of years,” Howard said.

“It’s time we come up with an action plan that I won’t be able to execute on my own, but we can certainly have in front of the Legislature, the governor and stakeholders and other partners to say, how can we make progress? It’s so critical. It’s so important,” Howard said.

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Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the editor in chief of Kansas Reflector. He writes about things that powerful people don't want you to know. A two-time Kansas Press Association journalist of the year, his award-winning reporting includes stories about education, technology, foster care, voting, COVID-19, sex abuse, and access to reproductive health care. Before founding Kansas Reflector in 2020, he spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. He graduated from Emporia State University in 2004, back when the school still valued English and journalism. He was raised in the country at the end of a dead end road in Lyon County.