Kristalle Hedrick, vice president of Kansas programs with FosterAdopt Connect, said the complexities of dealing with families and children in crisis due to abuse, neglect and poverty couldn’t be overstated and should be appreciated by state lawmakers working to reform foster care and child welfare programs. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — FosterAdopt Connect vice president Kristalle Hedrick was alarmed by challenges of being a foster parent despite her own professional experience in the child welfare system.
“I used to essentially tell all the social workers that I’d mentor that if you could make it as a foster care case manager for one year, you could do any job in the world,” Hedrick said. “And, then, I became a foster parent and I was like, ‘Oh, I’m going to rethink that.'”
Hedrick took part in a forum Wednesday among representatives of child advocacy organizations as well as state legislators and officials for discussion of steps taken by the 2023 Legislature to dive into complex issues influencing the welfare of 6,050 Kansas youth in foster care. The nine people on the panel, including three state legislators, also explored potential reform measures available to the 2024 Legislature that could strengthen families and children in need.
“When it comes to young people, especially in the first five years of their lives, we need every ingredient,” said John Wilson, president of Kansas Action for Children. “That’s housing. That’s access to health care. It’s stable relationships with caregivers. It’s to make sure those caregivers also have their basic needs met.”
Wilson, a former member of the Kansas House, said every legislative committee had an element of child welfare within their subject matter jurisdiction. He said lawmakers should make use of all available federal funding for benefit of struggling families, including access to health care through expansion of Medicaid and delivery of aid under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistant Program and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. In the past decade, Kansas lawmakers sharply restricted availability of federal benefits under SNAP and TANF. Kansas is among states that blocked Medicaid expansion.
“We have, I think, a large hurdle to overcome with the Legislature and those in power in understanding that kids can’t raise themselves. There need to be adults in their lives that care for them,” Wilson said. “We have to wrestle with the tension of long-held beliefs. We shouldn’t be … punishing kids as a result of not supporting people that care for kids.”
Foster care numbers
Laura Howard, secretary of the Kansas Department for Children and Families, said the number of children and youth in foster care had declined 20% since 2018. It was a combination of legislative, administrative and external changes designed to create stability for the state’s youngest residents suffering abuse or neglect.
“Placing youth with relatives has been one of the key pieces that has led to placement stability for the vast majority of youth using the system,” Howard said.
Sen. Kristen O’Shea, a Topeka Republican, said there was value in keeping children within a family structure. However, she said, the state ought to give greater consideration to allowing foster families to adopt a child they bonded with while delivering years of care.
“Some children go with family and family situations that wouldn’t be up to par for allowing them to be foster families, but it’s up to par because it’s simply a relative,” O’Shea said.
Rep. Susan Humphries, a Wichita Republican and an adoption attorney, said bills crafted to provide guidance to state government agencies on placement of children and making decisions about adoption didn’t survive the 2023 session. She said lawmakers would continue to make the case for reform given public consternation with what occurred when parental rights of a parent were terminated through the courts.
It proved difficult to determine where to place in state law the science of attachment and a mechanism enabling foster parents to appeal placement actions, Humphries said. It was a struggle to settle on a method to improve effectiveness of guardian ad litems responsible for advocating in the best interests of children in foster care. A bill setting the framework for a separate attorney to be appointed by the court to represent a foster child didn’t pass.
“I’m sure we have wonderful guardian ad litem’s all over the state, but I’ve seen examples where people don’t feel like their children have been served well,” Humphries said.
The corrections angle
Howard, the DCF secretary, said the state had invested wisely in family intervention services so fewer children reached the stage where it was necessary for the court to move them into foster care. Last year, the DCF secretary said, 3,000 minors entered the state system. It was the smallest number in 18 years, but Howard was convinced the door into Kansas foster care remained too wide.
“Sometimes I think poverty gets connected to neglect. A lot of states have far more narrow statutory constructions,” Howard said.
She said Kansas politicians had undermined the safety net for families on the edge by withdrawing federal funding that could have been used to improve the financial status of those families. She said some Kansas policymakers hadn’t come to terms with the reality that placing a child in custody of the state was harmful.
“There is harm that comes with that,” she said.
Howard said she welcomed changes in state law enabling DCF to assess the condition of children and for the Kansas Department of Corrections to provide services to juveniles with violent behavior while detained in crisis intervention centers.
Mike Fonkert, deputy director of Kansas Appleseed, said it was a mistake to roll back limits on incarcerating children. He said the “quick dip” of jail for technical violations of probation agreements was a mistake.
“Nowhere in the country is jail a good place for a kid to end up,” Fonkert said. “It’s not a good place for us to try and heal the child. It’s not the environment that I think any of us want to see our kids end up.”
Bill of Rights
Rep. Susan Concannon, a Beloit Republican, and Kerrie Lonard, the child advocate in the Kansas Division of Child Advocate, praised implementation by the Legislature and Gov. Laura Kelly of a bill of rights for children and adults involved in foster care. The legislation was named in honor of the late Rep. Gail Finney, a Wichita Democrat who died in 2022.
“She was so passionate about getting this done,” Concannon said.
Lonard, with a mission to provide independent oversight of Kansas child welfare services, said a clear declaration in state law of foster care rights was long overdue.
“Now that it’s in statute it gives the opportunity to really have some power, particularly in front of a court, to insure those rights are being protected for our youth and children,” Lonard said.
Lonard said narrowing the passageway into foster care required communities to improve access to child care, housing, health care, education and transportation for fragile families. The goal should be to deliver resources to families before they reached a breaking point, she said.
“Because we don’t say government makes a great parent, right, then what is it at the front end that our communities need to be providing for our children?” she said.
Rachel Marsh, chief executive officer of Children’s Alliance of Kansas, said Kansas lawmakers had to understand family economics and intergenerational impediments to stability were an element of public health. There would be no easy solutions to questions about children at risk of neglect or abuse, she said.
“Something that’s really important that our system begins to understand is that child welfare has to be seen as a central part of the public health conversation. I appreciate KHI doing this panel and recognizing that. I’m not sure that the rest of the public health community has gotten that far,” Marsh said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story inaccurately reflected the foster care experience of FosterAdopt Connect vice president Kristalle Hedrick. She has been a foster and adoptive parent, but wasn’t adopted herself.
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