Kansas lawmakers press state’s child advocate for foster care solutions
Litigation officer for Kansas Appleseed says legal action is a ‘possibility’
Sen. Molly Baumgardner, R-Louisburg, urges solutions to foster care system failures following the release of a second annual state report. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — With increased rates of children in the foster care system sleeping in offices and social workers spending their time “shuttling kids” from place to place, advocates say lawmakers and government officials need to step up before the state faces another lawsuit.
Lawmakers at a Tuesday child welfare system oversight meeting shifted the pressure to the state’s child advocate.
Sen. Molly Baumgardner, R-Louisburg, grilled Kerrie Lonard on solutions for Kansas’ failure to improve the foster care system in key areas.
“What recommendations do you have, so that this doesn’t go back to the courts?” Baumgardner queried. “Because I see that as happening.”
The second legally mandated foster care system report, released Aug. 14, examines all of the foster care system data available for the 2022 calendar year. Data from the report shows the state has failed to meet several key targets, such as ending the practice of one-night placements and the practice of housing children in offices or other inappropriate settings.
The yearly assessment is one condition of the state’s settlement of a class action federal lawsuit with Kansas Appleseed and other entities, which was settled in January 2021 after the state agreed to work toward system improvements.
Lonard was selected in December 2021 by Gov. Laura Kelly as leader of the Division of the Child Advocate. Lonard’s division was created to allow independent investigations into the foster care system and to help the state improve the system.
The division was created as part of Kelly’s administration after lawmakers on both sides of the aisle failed to reach a compromise on oversight plans. The move stirred anger among Republicans in the Legislature who didn’t want the position under Kelly’s purview.
Lonard’s department holds public and private entities accountable by reviewing practices, educating children in the system about their rights and receiving complaints on behalf of children, among other duties.
Lonard told Baumgardner there isn’t an easy fix to issues such as the increased movement and the scattered data system.
“If there was a quick, easy answer, I think we would have it,” Lonard said. “I think it’s very complicated, and I think it’s going to take very strategic steps at the front end, all the way to our youth who are —”
Baumgardner interrupted Lonard, commanding her to be specific.
The senator said children and youths were “forced to just take it,” in terms of being moved around repeatedly, or spending nights in foster care offices. She said solutions needed to be forthcoming, especially since the Legislature had been blamed.
“We need to know as a legislator because we repeatedly get blamed. … We need to know as a legislature what exactly each of these contractors are going to be doing to make the changes so we’re not going to end up in court,” Baumgardner said.
“Quite frankly, I’m not afraid of going to court,” she added. “But what concerns me most is the reason for perhaps going to court is because we made an agreement. And the contractors have known upfront what that agreement was. And we haven’t abided by the agreement, and that means we have not done what many have said is best for children.”
Child welfare advocates who sued the state in 2018 over failures to adequately provide for children and youths within the foster care system voiced the same concerns. Several groups held an Aug. 15 news conference to discuss ongoing foster care failures.
“Last year, we were trending in the right direction and unfortunately this year, we really went off the rails with that number,” said Leecia Welch, deputy legal director at Children’s Rights.
Teresa Woody, litigation director for Kansas Appleseed, said the organization wasn’t eager to take legal action, but she said it remains an option if the state continues to struggle.
“Ultimately, if the state can’t make those improvements, then the plaintiffs do have the ability to go back to the court and seek the court’s enforcement,” Woody said. “That’s something that is a possibility. But obviously everybody would like to spend the resources in a more positive way that directly impacts the children.”
Welch said moving children around so much hurt both children and social workers who have been underused because of systemic flaws.
In 2021, children on average moved 5.84 times per 1,000 days in care. In 2022, the average was six moves per 1,000 days in care. Eighty-five foster children had spent 257 nights in offices in 2022, up from 2021 numbers, which found that 53 foster children slept in offices 167 times.
“When social workers have to spend all their time shuttling kids from one night to night placement to the office, back to another night to night placement, they’re transport workers, they’re not actually getting to do their job,” Welch said. “That is a very depressing thing for a social worker who goes into the profession with all the right ideas about helping children to kind of come to grips with.”
One avenue for change would be through the foster care contract renewals, which come up for rebidding in December. The Department for Children and Families determines contract renewal and could implement stricter oversight measures.
Mike Fonkert, deputy director of Kansas Appleseed, said DCF should use the process to tighten accountability.
“Before the ink is dry on new contracts, we should all be encouraging DCF to use the leverage that they really do have to build strong contracts that allow them the ability to have that robust oversight,” Fonkert said.
A DCF spokesman said he could not comment on particulars of the DCF rebidding process, as it had already started.
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