Dani Hulings said work with incarcerated mothers revealed a foster care system struggling to keep children with their families. Focus should be on rehabilitating the parents and reuniting them with their children, she said. (Screenshot of Kansas Legislature Youtube)
TOPEKA — In 21 years working with incarcerated mothers and grandmothers, Dani Hulings has seen how the Kansas foster care system can often shut out parents and their families from the placement process.
Hulings, a coordinator for the Offender Family Reintegration Services at the Topeka Correctional Facility, meets with approximately 67 of these mothers as part of the Women’s Activity Learning Center program. Those 67 mothers have 122 children currently in the foster care system.
Many of the women, who often lack external support, are not being given a fair shot to keep a familial connection with their child, Hulings said. She said people have a misconception that these mothers are only sober because they are in jail.
“I see the women through their sober eyes and see that they are truly giving it their all to maintain their parental rights,” Hulings said. Those who are sober here are that way because they make the conscious decision to be.”
Hulings provided her perspective on the failings of the beleaguered Kansas foster care system on Wednesday to the Joint Committee on the Child Welfare System. While governmental agencies and foster care providers say the goal is to keep families together, Hulings, parents and other stakeholders say this is often not how things play out.
In Hulings’ experience, for example, once a woman becomes incarcerated, reintegration usually gets sidelined and parental rights are almost assuredly terminated. She said this goes against the principle of supporting a family-first approach with children before placing them in foster care.
In many cases, children in the foster care system will go through three to five caseworkers in a year and several placements, Hulings said. Rather than focus on placing a child into foster care, the state ought to focus on truly keeping children in the family and addressing the root cause of the incarcerated women’s difficulties, like a growing drug epidemic.
“The majority of the women I assist here have an underlying drug problem and, in some cases, prison saved their lives,” Hulings said. “Once they are incarcerated and able to focus on drug rehabilitation and trauma issues, a new door opens for them to see life differently. They just needed someone to give them a chance to work on themselves.”
Legislators on the panel noted this view of incarcerated mothers is not often highlighted during their committee hearings.
Sen. Molly Baumgardner, R-Louisburg, said incarceration often cuts the moms off from outside resources, leaving them unable to fight for their parental rights and show their efforts to adequately parent their child.
“We have a very lackluster skills program for the women in the adult custody to develop skills for meaningful job opportunities,” Baumgardner said. “How might we make things more consistent for women that are incarcerated and afford them the same leeway that seems to be occurring outside of the incarcerated foster system?”
Three parents — Tobin Hoffman, Randy Pruett and Raymond Sipult — whose children entered the foster care system at one point, testified about what needed to be changed to prevent families from being left out of the process. Hoffman said he and 30 members of his family showed up to the custody hearing, but even then, the state chose to place his son into foster care.
“You have agencies that are not following the laws and policies that were set forth by the Kansas lawmakers,” Hoffman said. “I want an independent entity to be able to have the community review their practices to make sure they are following the appropriate guidelines for families.”
Mary Dean, president of Kansas Justice Advocate, also noted that Black children are reintegrated at a disproportionately lower rate than other demographics. She said Black children are also over-represented in foster care nationally at a rate more than twice their proportion in the U.S. child population.
Black children are four times more likely to be placed in the state’s care, she said.
“I get phone calls regularly from parents and grandparents about issues, especially when it comes to having their children taken away from them because of their situations,” Dean said. “Black cultures are different from a lot of cultures and that’s something that it would appear that some social workers are not willing to understand. They don’t care.”
Sen. Beverly Gossage, R-Eudora, said there is a larger issue with people conflating having limited space in their living arrangements with a parental inability to care for their children. Gossage pointed to her own upbringing as one of 15 children growing up on a farm with tight living quarters.
She also said cultural differences might be at play, especially if the people making custody decisions were raised in homes where there were three bathrooms and everybody had their own bedroom.
“They don’t understand that these are people that maybe can benefit from some free clothing or some help with food, but can still take care of their families,” she said.
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