Laura Howard, secretary of the Kansas Department for Children and Families, says the department plans to strengthen community service programs. (Sam Bailey/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — The Kansas Department for Children and Families has poured the majority of a final round of pandemic-era grant funding into bolstering its online user referral system.
Gov. Laura Kelly announced Monday that DCF selected five recipients for the final round of Strengthening People and Revitalizing Kansas community capacity grants.
“It is vital that Kansas children and their families receive essential physical and mental health services, housing, nutrition, educational and advocacy services throughout the state,” Kelly said. “These grants will ensure that children and families have access to the supports necessary for success.”
Most of the funding will be given to Unite Us, an organization that uses software to consolidate different sectors into a coordinated care network. The $7.7 million for Unite Us is meant to provide three years of software services and implementation services for DCF.
The end goal is to connect DCF users with other agencies, county governments and health care providers for easier referrals to community-based organizations. The services will allow safe access to child care information, such as incoming care requests and referrals, communication with the referring organization and tracking the outcomes of services for each client, among others, according to a news release.
The funding comes after years of criticism over Kansas’ lack of a statewide data system for child welfare information. Instead of a consolidated system, the state has case files and state data scattered over several different systems, making information more difficult to review.
Adina Morse, child welfare advocate for Kansas Appleseed, said DCF needed to prioritize the creation of an integrated data system.
“These are children,” Morse said. “Each and every one of these numbers represents an actual living, breathing, beautiful child, and we need to know from the moment they enter the care of the state to the moment they leave: What happened? Where did they go? What are their health problems? What medications are they on?”
Kansas Appleseed in 2018 sued the state over systemic failures in the foster care system, and a federal court judge approved a settlement in the case in 2021.
One condition of the settlement was that the state undergo a yearly independent evaluation of the foster care system. Morse cited the results of the most recent evaluation, which recommended the state implement an integrated data system to improve outcomes for children who were slipping through the cracks.
“The state has the ultimate responsibility for these children and we have to know if the changes that they’re making in response to our lawsuit work,” Morse said. “The only way we know if they’re working is if we have accurate, reliable data.”
Another study found that almost half of the 737 youths placed in foster care in 2022 were there because they needed better resources, not because of abuse or neglect. Increased community services would help keep children out of the foster care system, DCF secretary Laura Howard argued at the time.
“We think that anything that makes it easier for parents and caregivers to be connected to services is crucial to getting the support they need to care for their families,” said John Wilson, president and CEO of Kansas Action for Children.
Four other organizations received funding to provide community services in areas across the state.
Community Green Farms, a nutrition program that seeks to provide schools with hydroponic farms, received a two-year $1,052,000 grant. The money will be used to put hydroponic classroom farms in several Kansas schools, including those in Allen, Bourbon and Wilson counties, with the end goal of using the produce in cafeteria lunches and teaching students about health, nutrition and agriculture, among other subjects.
Children’s First will receive almost $600,000 in a one-year grant to convert portions of a Wichita church into a community center.
The Kansas Court Appointed Special Advocates Association will receive more than $375,000 in a two-year grant meant to help them promote organizational goals. CASA of Johnson and Wyandotte Counties will receive $125,000 for training space renovations.
“At DCF, we believe that communities bring strength through relationships and resources,” Howard said. “These organizations are doing just that by offering children and families opportunities to learn and coordinate health, housing and nutritional services available through state and local resources.”
The grants go into effect in October.
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