Over the past two years, near-record numbers of children have entered the state?s foster care system.
At the same time, fewer children have exited and the number of adoptions involving children in state custody has fallen to a six-year low.
?It?s a trend,? said Lois Rice, executive director with CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) of Johnson and Wyandotte Counties. ?In just our two counties, we had 610 CINC (child-in-need-of-care) petitions filed in 2008; in 2012 we had 975. That?s a 60 percent increase in four years, and this year?s numbers are looking like they?ll be higher than last year?s.?
Across the state, CASA offices recruit, train, and coordinate the activities of volunteers who befriend children in state custody, listen to their wants and needs, and advocate on their behalf.
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?re allowed to return to their families once a judge decides those problems have been resolved.
The average stay in foster care in Kansas is 16 months, though it?s not unusual that a child might spend several years in the system.
In Sedgwick County, the state?s most populous after Johnson County, the average number of children in out-of-home placements has increased from 950 in fiscal 2011 to 1,319 in fiscal 2013.
On June 30 across Kansas, there were 5,719 children in out-of-home foster care settings, a mix of foster homes, relatives? homes, group homes, psychiatric facilities, and juvenile detention facilities.
That?s only the second time in the past 10 years that the number has exceeded 5,700 on the final day of the state?s fiscal year. The last time was in 2008, the onset of the Great Recession.
The actual number of children in out-of-home placements varies from month to month. The numbers posted on June 30 provide a ?snapshot ?of annual trends.
Also on June 30, there were 975 children in foster care whose parents? rights had been terminated and who were available for adoption. The most in at least the past four years and perhaps ever, if the memories of a former state welfare official are correct.
?I know that the definition of ?awaiting adoption? has changed over the years, but I don?t think we ever got where we had 975 kids in the system and available for adoption,? said Joyce Allegrucci, an assistant secretary for child and family services at the state Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services from 1998 through 2001. ?If we ever got to 975 kids, we weren?t there for very long.?
Allegrucci said ?something is wrong? when the state?s foster care system has ?500 more kids than it did a year ago or 18 months ago?and it?s a trend we should all be concerned about.?
Officials at the Kansas Department for Children and Families said they were aware of the foster care situation.
?The current administration inherited a difficult economy and troubling trends when it comes to the numbers of children entering and exiting state custody,? Theresa Freed, a spokesperson for the agency, wrote in an email to KHI News Service.
?We are looking at how we can integrate more preventative services with our community partners, so that families never reach the point of crisis and require state intervention,? she wrote.
The agency, she said, is committed ??to keeping families together when it is safe to do so.?
Though the total number of Kansans ages 0-19 has increased during the same period that foster care cases have gone up, the increase in foster care has outpaced the rate of population growth.
DCF officials have attributed the increase largely to the weak economy and parental drug abuse. But the numbers have not improved as the economy has and the percentage of foster care cases attributed to drug or alcohol problems has remained steady over the past few years.
Children?s advocates said they see other potential reasons for the increase.
Recent changes in state policies have resulted in thousands of needy families losing their welfare benefits, straining parents? abilities to care for their children. It?s not surprising, the advocates said, that more children are ending up in foster care.
?There?s definitely a need to carefully examine these numbers and determine what?s happened in the course of the last two years that?s increased the rate of out-of-home placements, reduced the number of finalized adoptions, and increased the numbers of kids awaiting adoptions,? said Shannon Cotsoradis, chief executive with the advocacy group Kansas Action for Children.
According to DCF reports, 14,204 families received cash assistance in the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2011. Two years later there were 7,790.
The number of working parents receiving child-care assistance dropped from to 9,953 in fiscal 2011 to 8,163 in fiscal 2013.
The policy changes, Cotsoradis said, limited beneficiaries? eligibility for cash assistance to 48 months instead of 60 months and required them to apply for at least 20 jobs a week.
And to qualify for the child-care aid, low-income parents now must work 30 hours a week instead of 20.
DCF officials have said that stiffer requirement was meant to encourage parents to find work instead of depending on government programs. Advocates for the poor, however, say many parents?particularly young mothers working low-wage, part-time jobs?are unable to find the second or third jobs needed to meet the 30-hour requirement.
Without the subsidies, they struggle to pay child-care bills.
Another DCF policy allows the agency to take away an entire family?s benefits, if any child in the household is truant.
?The changes went into effect in 2011, and in 2012 and 2013 we see a rather significant increase in the number of kids going into foster care and a 150-kid decrease in the number of kids being adopted,? Cotsoradis said. ?The bottom line here, I think, is that these are families that are more fragile than they were just a couple years ago.?
Services harder to find
Kellie Hogan, a Kansas Legal Services attorney in Wichita, said she has noticed that parents whose children are in foster care appear to be having a harder time finding and paying for the services they need to get their children back home.
?It?s just the way it is,? she said. ?If a parent can?t get or doesn?t have access to the community supports they need to take care of their kids, then those kids are going to remain in the system. I see a lot of parents struggling with that.?
Increasingly, these services either aren?t available or have long waiting lists, said Wendy Flickinger, outreach coordinator for the Family Advisory Council, a Hutchinson-based program that helps parents navigate the foster care system.
?Nobody is saying kids should stay in a home that isn?t safe,? Flickinger said. ?But if a kid is living in a filthy house, let?s go in and show mom how to clean it up. If you?ve got a young mom who?s got three kids and has never had anyone show her how to parent, let?s go in and mentor her. That?s hard to do when the funding for those services (local anti-poverty and mental health programs) keeps getting cut like it has.?
Flickinger said her program helps about 100 families a year. Most of them, she said, involve parents who are working low-wage jobs and are not eligible for cash assistance.
?This is just my personal opinion,? she said. ?But I think the State of Kansas is trying to balance the budget on backs of the poor because so many programs and services that lower-income people need to survive are being cut. And yet we?re giving the upper-income people tax deductions.
?I know how it?s all supposed to trickle down and lead to more people being employed. I?m all for that,? she said. ?I just don?t think we ought to be cutting all these services to people who are poor.?
Diana Frederick, who runs the CASA program in Lawrence, said she?s seen an increase in the number of foster care cases involving mentally ill children who, earlier, likely would have been referred to one of the state?s Psychiatric Residential Treatment Facilities.
Many of these children, she said, have had their lengths of stays shortened as part of the state?s effort to rein in costs and lessen families? reliance on institutional care.
In fiscal 2010, prior to the policy change, the average number of children in the facilities per month was 683. And there were 17 facilities, according to state reports.
Last month, there were only 216 children in the PRTFs and the number of facilities had dropped to 11, according to DCF numbers shared with PRTF officials.
?What?s happening is they?re not able stay in a PRTF as long as they should, they go back to a foster home, their resource parents can?t handle them, and they end up in crisis,? Frederick said.
?In some cases, maybe they didn?t need to be in a PRTF any longer than they were, but that?s not to say they were ready to go back to a foster home either. There needs to be something in between, but there isn?t a lot of times.?
Freed said she didn?t know if cuts in services were a factor in the growth of cases and said other agency officials were too busy with other work to respond to questions about that. She suggested contacting the state?s foster care contractors to see what they had to say about it.
Freed specifically recommended Kyle Kessler, executive vice president of KVC Behavioral Health Care, Inc., one of the state?s two major foster care contractors.
Kessler said KVC officials were expecting the number of foster care cases to drop this fiscal year and also attributed much of the recent increase in cases to substance abuse.
?We think there will be some efficiencies in the combining of the contracts and we?re excited to see what those efficiencies might be,? he said.
The combining of contracts Kessler referred to stems from Kansas privatizing most of its foster care system 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.
Earlier this year, DCF announced that two of the organizations?St. Francis Community Services, Salina, and KVC Behavioral Healthcare, Olathe?had been awarded the family preservation and foster care contracts. The decision meant that United Methodist Youthville, Wichita; TFI Family Services, Topeka; and DCCCA, Lawrence, would lose their contracts. The contracts changed hands on July 1.
DCF expects to pay St. Francis and KVC $80.7 million and $70.2 million, respectively, in fiscal 2014.
?We?re already thinking that FY 14?s numbers are going to be better than FY 13?s,? Kessler said. ?But big picture-wise, I have to say we?re seeing a lot of substance abuse on the part of both the parents and the kids.
?I?m not saying any of this is new,? he said. ?But it?s not going away either.?
He said he hadn?t heard anyone raise concerns about the policy changes that had reduced the number of people receiving welfare benefits.
?I just haven?t heard the concerns about reductions in the type of services you mention,” he said. ?Also, I have not heard any comments about cash assistance reductions increasing foster care referrals.?
Freed said DCF has been ?actively working to recruit foster and adoptive families.?
According to figures from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, the numbers of licensed foster homes in Kansas has been between 2,415 and almost 2,500 for the past six years. Last year?s total, 2,486, was the most since 2009.
Last year, 391 of the 620 adoptions involving children in state custody were adopted by their foster parents. More than half of the adoptions involved children who were 5 years old or younger.
The KHI News Service is an editorially independent initiative of the Kansas Health Institute and is committed to timely, objective and in-depth coverage of health issues and the policy making environment. Dave Ranney is former editor of the Hillsboro Star-Journal.