State’s foster care program still a mess

by Dave Ranney

In the waning days of this year’s legislative session, Kansas lawmakers agreed to put together a task force to determine how best to shore up the state’s reeling foster care system.

This is good news. Advo­cates for abused and neglected children should be thrilled.

They’re not. They’re expecting it to be another in a long list of dog-and-pony shows from the Brownback administration. The likelihood of transparency is slim.

When Kansas privatized the bulk of its child protection responsibilities in the mid-1990s, advocates who had long been quick to criticize the state-run foster care system soon learned that to “stay in the game” they would need to keep their mouths shut, particularly in the company of policymakers or the media.

If these individuals and groups—who think that different policies could safely reduce the number of children in out-of-home placements—did not, there would be a price to pay.

This, in part, explains why legislators in recent years have been caught off- guard by reports of record-setting numbers of children finding their way into state custody, gay and lesbian foster parents not being allowed to adopt, children sitting in their case-workers’ offices for days at a time because there’s nowhere else for them to go, teens experiencing so many moves that barely 20 percent graduate from high school, and frontline case workers being underpaid, undertrained, overworked and quick to jump ship.

Legislators didn’t know those things because no one told them. Instead, Depart­ment of Children and Families Secretary Phyllis Gilmore this year chose to tell legislators that Kansas has one of the safest child welfare systems in the nation while, at the same time, sidestepping questions about how her agency lost track of Adrian Jones, a 7-year-old boy whose father fed his starved corpse to pigs. In the coming weeks, the foster care task force will find itself caught between a state agency that has forfeited its credibility and an advocacy network that’s justly afraid to bite the hand that feeds.

Several advocates­—in exchange for anonymity—offered some suggestions for enhancing the task force’s findings. Here’s a sampling:

• All concerned should start by agreeing the best way to address the shortage of foster homes is to safely shrink the numbers of kids coming into the system.

• Don’t say that more data are needed. That’s just kicking the can down the road for another year. Tons of data exist.

• Don’t waste time debating whether to undo privatization. Everybody knows that’s not going to happen. Besides, privatization isn’t the issue; the issues are adequate funding and training.

• The people of Kansans deserve an honest explanation of the decision-making processes that allowed Adrian Jones and his sisters to remain in a household that was clearly abusive.

• Six years ago, there were 5,300 kids in foster care; today there are 7,200. Have the numbers of workers and supervisors assigned to their cases experienced a similar increase?

• Let’s find out how many children ended up in foster care after DCF cut their often-desperate families’ access to food stamps, public assistance and subsidized childcare.

For the past six and half years, social services in Kansas have been governed by a belief that the best way to “strengthen” low-income families is to push parents into low-wage jobs by cutting their access to public assistance. At the same time, record numbers of children have been removed from their parent’s care.

Task force members should ask: “How’s that working out?”

Dave Ranney, former editor of the Hillsboro Star-Jour­nal, is senior writer/editor for the Kansas Health Institute.

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