Child welfare panel pushes Kansas foster care agencies to look inward for solutions

By: - October 7, 2021 9:15 am

Sen. Molly Baumgardner, R-Louisburg, said it was difficult to trust organizations like Saint Francis Ministries amid reports of financial turmoil and mismanagement, missing children and children sleeping in cars, offices and more. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Legislators on the child welfare oversight committee complained Wednesday that foster care providers lacked honest testimony about problems within their organizations or potential solutions.

Child welfare groups appeared before the panel to address issues plaguing the privatized foster care system, and suggested the Legislature invest more funds. Some lawmakers interpreted their comments as “throwing mud” at the Legislature.

Sen. Molly Baumgardner, a Louisburg Republican, said many of the agencies and organizations testifying had either lied to or mischaracterized issues of missing children or children staying the night in offices. She referenced the settlement in January of a lawsuit by Kansas Appleseed over the failings of the state and contractors to provide adequate care for kids.

“It took a class-action lawsuit for us … to address these issues. That’s how we found out the kids were spending nights not just in offices but in hotel rooms and in cars, and that whole list of things that we had to include in legislation,” Baumgardner said. “I don’t feel apologetic for saying I expected a whole lot different. I thought that today and yesterday we would get a whole lot more real about the issues that are ahead of us.”

Baumgardner was particularly critical of Saint Francis Ministries, the state’s largest foster care provider, which has fallen under intense scrutiny over financial misconduct first reported by Kansa Reflector. Saint Francis was among the organizations presenting before the panel.

Matt Stephens, vice president of programs for Saint Francis Ministries, covered the services the nonprofit provides in case management, kinship care and mental health treatment and offered recommendations for actions the Legislature could take.

Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, D-Wichita, questioned Stephens about the 17-year-old boy who died in police custody last month. The boy was placed in a foster care home by Saint Francis, but when the foster father called them about the boy’s behavior, Faust-Goudeau said, he was told it would be two hours before someone could help. Instead, the boy was taken into police custody and later died after an altercation at a juvenile detention facility.

Faust-Goudeau said she receives calls many nights from concerned parties regarding children in the foster care system who feel like they cannot reach anyone to help them.

Stephens told the senator he would endeavor to be available, when possible, to answer these questions.

“I think you should feel free to call me at the same time as people calling you with incredible concerns, things that we need to be addressing,” Stephen said. “I would be available to you to do that.”

Linda Bass, president of KVC Kansas, a foster care contractor, said the Legislature has a role to play in addressing some of the longstanding shortfalls of the child welfare system. She said a primary concern is a subpar wage structure for social workers, but Sen. Richard Hilderbrand, a Galena Republican who serves as chairman of the committee, was skeptical about providing a wage increase.

“Child welfare is always competing against organizations that can offer to pay more, have better hours and lower stress,” Bass said. “We are long overdue with that investment to go back into Kansas child welfare because our staff are working with the most vulnerable population, and we have the best likelihood at improving the outcomes for kids and families across the board.”

Hilderbrand said he was disappointed with the shade he felt organizations were directing at the Legislature.

“We’re not going to get up here and bring up all the horror stories we hear from our districts about providers,” Hilderbrand said. “Providers, take this very seriously and provide actual answers on problems and solutions within your agencies because everybody sitting in this committee has heard of those problems. We need answers and solutions, not more mud throwing.”

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Noah Taborda
Noah Taborda

Noah Taborda started his journalism career in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Missouri, covering local government and producing an episode of the podcast Show Me The State while earning his bachelor’s degree in radio broadcasting at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Noah then made a short move to Kansas City, Missouri, to work at KCUR as an intern on the talk show Central Standard and then in the newsroom, reporting on daily news and feature stories.