Laura Howard, secretary of the Kansas Department for Children and Families, endorsed findings of an independent study of Kansas’ foster care system, including reasons for a surge in older youth with disabilities or behavioral health challenges. (Kansas Reflector screen capture from Kansas Legislature YouTube channel)
TOPEKA — A new report on Kansas’ foster care found too many youths 13 to 17 years of age with intensive behavioral health challenges were experiencing residential placement instability because the state system wasn’t equipped to serve the large volume of higher-need individuals.
Leanne Heaton, senior researcher and data manager at Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, shared with a joint House and Senate committee Friday an evaluation of placement instability within the Kansas foster care program. The independent report concentrated on why so many Kansas children and youths engaged in foster care were being moved from home to home.
Foster care instability has generally been defined as three or more residential placements of a child under jurisdiction of a state welfare agency. Those transitions could make it more difficult for children to find a permanent home.
The report indicated the portion of individuals in Kansas foster care older than 13 years of age experiencing three or more moves in a 12-month period had climbed from 54% in 2019 to 61% in 2023.
“When children and youth have to be separated from their families … we want them to be stable in their placement,” Heaton said. “We want them to be stable in their foster homes and in their temporary placements so they can achieve permanency. We want them to achieve permanency quickly. Within six months is ideal, but definitely within 12 months.”
Heaton said the collaborative study involving the Capacity Building Center for States and the U.S. Children’s Bureau revealed root causes of foster care instability in Kansas also were associated with a front door into the system that was “too wide due to a lack of understanding of the role of foster care.”
She said the percentage of Kansas children removed from homes due to the family’s or child’s need for special assistance, instead of neglect or abuse, and bouncing from placement to placement had climbed from 27% in 2019 to 35% in 2023. In other words, she said, one-third of children entering the state’s foster care system weren’t there primarily due to instances of abuse or neglect and were being passed around too much.
“This is separating a child or youth from their family and placing them in a foster care system that’s meant to be a temporary refuge from abuse and neglect,” Heaton said.
Older, high-needs youths
In addition, Heaton said research affirmed Kansas had inadequate community-based prevention services for benefit of older, high-needs youths. The researchers concluded community prevention programs across the state weren’t equipped to deal with passage in 2016 of Senate Bill 367, which narrowed the option of holding troubled youths in juvenile justice facilities.
Heaton said the assessment showed Kansas had a shortage of residential placements for older youths with intensive behavioral health challenges.
She recommended Kansas align policies, practices and investments associated with child welfare, behavioral health, the courts and Medicaid to create comprehensive community-based prevention services for youths. The idea would be to deliver support to struggling older youths before contemplating placement in foster care, she said.
“If we know the population that’s mostly driving placement instability — it’s not all, but it is a good majority — are teenagers with intensive behavioral health needs, then we have to acknowledge this is a cross-system and community problem,” Heaton said.
The analysis from Heaton followed a report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ inspector general indicating Kansas had one of the highest rates of missing foster care children in the period between July 2018 and December 2020.
DCF secretary concurs
Laura Howard, secretary of the Kansas Department for Children and Families, said she concurred with researchers the foundation of placement instability among children and youths in Kansas went beyond management of the state’s foster care system to include availability of community prevention services and residential placement for older youths.
“I think one of the things that was most striking was how many times the conversation turned to implementing more effective community-based practices for families with children who were 12 years of age or older,” Howard said.
Howard said the number of Kansans in foster had fallen to 6,170, which would be a reduction of 20% since 2019.
She said that in the last fiscal year Kansas had 737 individuals 14 years of age or older enter the foster care system. Forty percent of those people weren’t removed from their homes primarily for abuse or neglect, she said, but due to the need for access to services such as mental or behavioral health intervention.
“We’ve really tried to put a lot of effort around what kinds of other supports might be out there in communities to defer the need for foster care when there isn’t abuse or neglect, especially with older youth,” the DCF secretary said.
Howard said the state’s broad avenue for children to enter the foster care system had been an area of concern, including apprehension with frequency of court-initiated petitions for placement in foster care.
“A few more than half of those — 53% — of those requests for petitions came not from DCF, but from the court,” Howard said.
The report said decisions by Kansas judges about foster care placement were misaligned with DCF recommendations, including court-ordered removals tied to truancy or juvenile justice. The report went further to declare judges used foster care “as punishment” when not confident parents were up to the task of handling their children.
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