By Dave Ranney, KHI News Service
TOPEKA — The number of Kansas children in foster care has reached an all-time high. The explanations why vary.
In April, there were 6,156 children in the system. That’s 356 more children than in April 2013, and 872 more than two years earlier.
Dona Booe, chief executive of the Kansas Children's Service League, sees the escalating numbers as evidence of a building crisis.
“This is a primary indicator that we’re not reaching families before tragedies happen,” Booe said. “These are families in crises, and we’re not reaching them because the resources for reaching them have been exhausted.”
Officials in the administration of Gov. Sam Brownback don’t view the growing numbers with alarm. They attribute the increase to better awareness and reporting of child abuse and neglect.
“We are seeing an increasing number of reports being made,” Theresa Freed, a spokesperson for the Kansas Department for Children and Families, wrote in an email to KHI News Service. “The increase in foster care cases is consistent with that. We attribute the increase in reports to greater public awareness of the issues of child abuse and neglect.”
In 2010, according to DCF reports, the agency logged about 55,500 reports of suspected abuse or neglect. It expects to field more than 74,000 reports in 2014.
“We have done a tremendous job of working with community organizations to promote the reporting of child abuse and neglect,” Freed said. “Our rate of removal, based on the reports, is constant.”
But Booe and other children’s advocates suspect that increased public awareness is only one of the factors driving the foster care numbers upward.
They noted that the increases have coincided with changes in DCF polices since 2011 that led to thousands of families being dropped from state and other public assistance programs.
In the past four years, according to DCF reports, the number of children in households receiving public assistance fell from 24,567 in April 2011 to 11,867 in April 2014.
“What we’re seeing is that access to community supports and to government-funded supports have diminished in the last couple years,” Booe said. “That takes a toll on families. It adds to the stress that they’re under, and it increases the risk factors that lead to kids entering the system.”
At the same time, Booe said, state-funded support for services for at-risk families has been reduced.
In the last four years, she said, state funding for KCSL’s family support programs has been cut 10 percent.
“That may not sound like a lot, but when you don’t have a lot to begin with it is,” she said. “I hate saying this, but we’ve lost a lot of our funding sources that went toward helping our highest-risk families. The assumption has always been that the private sector would step in and make up the difference – and people have stepped up, they’ve been very generous – but they’ve not been able to keep pace with the loss of government funding.”
According to DCF records, the agency spent $2.8 million on the grants in Fiscal Year 2012 and $2.6 million in fiscal 2013. It expects to spend $1.3 million in fiscal 2014, which ends June 30.
The reductions, Booe said, mean programs like those administered by KSCL have fewer workers available to help families on the brink of having their children taken from them.
“There are people, case managers, who know how to help these families get through crises, get things stabilized and then plan for a better future,” Booe said. “But if a family has had its phone disconnected, the utilities have been turned off and they don’t have a car that works, they’re not going to know how to find someone who can help them get those resources. They need someone who can step in and help.
“But it’s these case-management kinds of services that there isn’t as much state-funded support for,” Booe said. “The services are there, but they’re incredibly stressed right now. And if your kids are not already in the system, your access to these services is going to be very, very limited.”
Dana Cox, operations director at Ashby House, a family shelter in Salina, said she’s also seeing demand for services outstrip supply.
“Increased public awareness may be playing a role,” she said. “But the far more serious issues have to do with the lack of services and the difficulty in gaining access to the services that are available. Mental health is a huge issue. Substance abuse is too, definitely.”
Cox and Booe said they assume that many of these families’ crises have been heightened by the policy changes that cut thousands of low-income families from the state’s public assistance rolls. Most of the changes involved increased work requirements.
DCF has not done an analysis to see how many children now in foster care came from families that lost their welfare benefits, Freed said.
But department officials, she said, “have not seen any evidence” of a correlation between fewer families receiving public assistance and more children being in foster care.
The stiffer eligibility requirements, she said, were meant to encourage parents to find work instead of depending on government programs.
But Ashley Thorne, who runs the Court Appointed Special Advocates office of Sedgwick County, said there’s little doubt that poverty is driving significant numbers of children into foster care.
“If you’re a child in a family that’s going through a cycle of violence or substance abuse and you’re removed your home, the court is going to give your parents a list of things they’re going to have to do before you’ll be allowed to return,” Thorne said.
“But these things – parenting classes, drug and alcohol testing, getting a psychological evaluation – all cost money,” she said. “So if your parents can’t afford to complete the court order or if they don’t have someone who can show them how to complete it, their rights will eventually be terminated.”
Children are placed in foster care after a judge rules their safety or welfare is in jeopardy, usually due to parental abuse or neglect. They remain in foster care until a judge decides their parents are able to care for them in a safe environment.
In Kansas, several juvenile court judges are participating in a pair of review panels designed to keep tabs on the state’s foster care system.
“Everybody is concerned about the number of kids coming into care,” said Melissa Ness, a longtime children’s advocate who coordinates the review panels.
Saline and Ottawa County Magistrate Judge Mary Thrower serves on one of the panels.
“I can tell you that in my district, inpatient drug and alcohol treatment for someone who’s uninsured – and a lot of the people we’re talking about here are uninsured – is very hard to come by,” Thrower said. “I’m not saying it’s not available, I’m saying it will be a while before you can get in. There simply aren’t enough beds.”
Thrower said she’s becoming increasingly frustrated with the system.
“On one hand, we’re dealing with cases that are much more complicated than they used to be,” she said. “It’s not that Mom or Dad has a drug problem, it’s that they have a drug problem, and they need mental health services, and there are disability issues to deal with.
“But then on the other hand, when we get these people motivated and they turn to the system for help, that help is difficult for them to access,” Thrower said. “I hear that from parents all the time, and I hear it from social workers, too.”
Magistrate Judge Ann Dixson, who presides over most of the foster care caseload in Dodge City, said she’s noticed an increase in the number of criminal drug-possession charges filed against adults whose children were present at the time of their arrest.
“That is a grave concern, to know that children are in a house where needles and drugs are present,” Dixson said. “It is neglect for these kids to grow up having no concept of what a normal healthy family is, thinking that drugs being out on the table is just the way it is.”
Dixson said her courtroom observations mirror Thrower’s. “The severity of cases is up,” she said. “The resources for responding to that severity are down.”
Admissions spike in 2013
Kansas privatized most of its foster care services in 1996, after the system failed several court-ordered reviews. Between 1997 and 2013, the state paid as many as six nonprofit organizations to oversee its foster care, adoption and family preservation efforts.
Last year, DCF decided to contract with just two organizations: St. Francis Community Services of Salina and KVC Behavioral Healthcare of Olathe. The decision caused United Methodist Youthville of Wichita, TFI Family Services of Topeka and DCCCA of Lawrence to lose their contracts.
At that time, Freed said the bids for the contract from KVC and St. Francis were lower than those from Youthville and TFI Family Services.
DCF expects to pay St. Francis and KVC $135.3 million in fiscal 2014, about $12.7 million less than it spent in fiscal 2013. The contracts are projected to cost $142.7 million in fiscal 2015.
Marilyn Jacobson, program analyst at KVC, said the agency noticed a spike in foster care admissions in spring 2013 that added more than 300 children to the system.
Jacobson said KVC officials still don’t understand what prompted the bubble.
“We’re not in a position to know because law enforcement and the courts control the (system’s) front door, and this a front-door issue,” she said. “Children get referred to us after they’ve been removed (from their families).”
The numbers of children exiting the system, Jacobson said, have remained steady. “But we have this significant bubble of kids who came in all at once and are still working their way toward permanency,” Jacobson said. “So when that gets added to everything else that’s going on, we find ourselves at an all-time high. The problem isn’t so much the back door as it is the front door.”
The federal review panels also aren’t sure why the system saw a big increase in spring 2013.
“These are volunteer panels,” said Ness, who’s also a lobbyist for St. Francis. “We do not have the research capacity to really get to the bottom of this. But it’s clear that whatever is happening is happening on the front end of the system. It’s not that kids aren’t moving through the system, it’s that more kids are entering the system.”
Fewer foster homes
Though the number of Kansas children in foster care has increased, the number of licensed foster homes has remained flat.
Records show that in April 2013 there were 2,486 licensed foster homes in Kansas; between 2009 and 2013, the state had access to an average of 2,491 homes.
“A lot of homes are taking in multiple kids, more than they have in the past,” said Jeff Piepho, president of the Kansas Foster and Adoptive Parent Association.
“Turnover is an issue,” he said. “A lot of times, foster parents will adopt the children they’ve been caring for and decide they’re not in a position to keep being foster parents, so they quit. Another reason is they do it for a year or two and come away feeling like they don’t have a loud enough voice. They don’t feel like anybody listens to what they have to say.”
The association and DCF, he said, are trying to change that.
“The other thing that’s happening is people don’t want to be foster parents because they think it would be so heartbreaking. They say, ‘Oh, I could never do that,’” Piepho said. “We need to address that, too. We need to show people how they can be a positive, interruptive force in a child’s life.”
Piepho, a Salina pastor, and his wife, Meadow, have cared for about 45 foster children in the past five years. The couple have adopted two children and are legal guardians for three others.
Additional mental health funding
At a Statehouse news conference last month, Brownback announced that his administration would spend an additional $9.5 million on mental health services in fiscal 2015.
Most of the money – up to $7 million – will come from the state’s federally funded Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block grant, which is administered by DCF.
It’s not yet clear how much of the $7 million will be spent on services for families at-risk of having their children placed in foster care.
During the press conference, DCF Secretary Phyllis Gilmore noted that more than 3,000 children had been removed from their homes since July 2013.
“Mental health issues,” she said, “are often at the root of the problems in these homes. That is a serious concern for me.”
Gilmore later released a list of seven programs – a mix of job training, substance abuse treatment, early childhood development, and in-home visitation services – that are likely to receive a portion of the $7 million.
The governor’s plan also would spend $500,000 on 81 additional beds in drug treatment programs across the state.
“We’re especially excited about the $500,000 that’s being set aside for inpatient (substance abuse) treatment,” said Dulcinea Rakestraw, vice president of treatment service at Preferred Family Healthcare, Wichita, and chair of the Kansas Association of Addiction Professionals.
“But that’s only a drop in the bucket when you compare it to the $10 million in cuts we’ve had to deal with” since FY 2009, she said, referring to reductions in both state and federal support.
“The funding that used to be there just isn’t there anymore,” Rakestraw said. “And a lot of that has to do with changes in policies for determining who’s eligible for Medicaid and who’s not. That’s been tightened up to a point where a lot of people who used to be eligible aren’t anymore. So a lot of us are in this situation where we have beds available, we just don’t have – and can’t get – the money to pay for them.”
At-risk families, too, Rakestraw said, are being harmed by the governor’s decision to not expand eligibility for Medicaid.
“Medicaid expansion would greatly assist families that are struggling and could reach out and access service before things reach the point of being unsafe,” she said.