How to strengthen Kansas foster care and help children and families thrive
Gov. Laura Kelly’s administration has made major progress on foster care prevention, and the legislature has passed important legislation to certify and fund community behavioral health clinics, writes Linda Bass. (Getty Images)
The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Linda Bass is president of KVC Kansas, a nonprofit of 450 professionals who strengthen families, prevent child abuse and neglect, and help people achieve mental health wellness.
Children who enter foster care due to child abuse, neglect or other challenges deserve to be safe and connected to a strong family and a healthy community. At KVC Kansas, we’ve provided foster care case management for 25 years and are passionate about child and family wellbeing.
While the number of children in foster care has declined from an all-time high of 7,687 children to 6,845, we still have a long way to go. From 2012 to 2018, the number of children in care increased by 2,500 youth or nearly 50%. How did we get here and what’s the best way forward?
Some believe what the Kansas foster care system needs most is more oversight. This is understandable given past concerns and tragedies. However, many layers of oversight already exist.
These include the federal government’s Child and Family Services Reviews, reports from the Kansas Department for Children and Families, safety and quality accreditation standards, independent financial audits of the state and providers, as well as advisory boards.
There’s nothing wrong with additional oversight, and there is value to establishing an independent office of the child advocate, which 22 other states currently have. However, oversight alone doesn’t address the root of the last decade’s challenges.
In the early 2000s, the Kansas child welfare system was a national leader in safety, quality, and innovation. This was a decade into child welfare privatization. KVC reduced congregate care of children from 30% to 4%, one of the lowest rates in the nation. We know children grow best in families.
Unfortunately, in the 2010s, Kansas slashed funding for programs that help vulnerable families such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and mental health assistance. This led to a rapid 50% increase of children in foster care, which devastated families and overwhelmed the system’s capacity to care for them.
When fewer children need foster care, it indicates that effective prevention services are in place, and the system can better serve those children who truly need it. Placement stability and children’s mental health access are both key and will keep improving as fewer children are in foster care.
Our vision of safely reducing the number of Kansas children in foster care by 50% is achievable. Many children enter foster care due to parental mental health, substance use concerns and employment and food assistance issues, rather than physical or sexual abuse. These families are a good fit for prevention services rather than foster care.
Nationally, six children per 1,000 are in foster care. However, in Kansas, the rate is nearly double that at 11 children per 1,000 (National KIDS COUNT, 2019). States such as New Jersey, Utah and Maryland have just two or three children in foster care per 1,000. They focus on prevention services. Failing to fund them has disastrous consequences.
Not only is prevention effective, but it’s significantly more cost-efficient. High quality prevention services such as family preservation cost on average $5,000-10,000 per family compared to $78,000 per family for one year of foster care. That means foster care is up to 16 times more expensive than prevention.
Gov. Laura Kelly’s administration has made major progress on foster care prevention, and the legislature has passed important legislation to certify and fund community behavioral health clinics. We applaud them and hope to see prevention expand.
As Desmond Tutu said, “There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.”
Private nonprofit partners
The word privatization evokes thoughts of for-profit companies, but child welfare privatization means partnering with innovative, values-driven nonprofits that are skilled at attracting donations to help children.
Nonprofits like KVC are necessary, effective partners for a strong child welfare system. We’ve reduced children’s time in foster care, increased adoptions for children needing forever families and embedded trauma-informed care.
We’ve also strengthened our team of 450 caring child welfare professionals. We’ve increased employee retention to more than 74% at a time while most child welfare agencies nationally only retain half of their employees. This retention means greater stability for children and families. And we’ve launched a diversity, equity, and inclusion council that is addressing racial disparities in the child welfare system and actively recruiting Black and LGBTQIA+ adults to be team members and foster parents.
Leadership, resources, and private nonprofit partners are all key elements of success.
The best way to care for children in foster care is to strengthen families and safely prevent the need for foster care in the first place.
By adding more resources to child welfare and mental health overall, we can attract high-quality professionals, reduce caseloads and improve quality of care.
We must ask ourselves each day: What would I want for my own child? Children in foster care deserve what every child does – a permanent home and a loving family.
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