Kansas fails to meet most foster care settlement benchmarks but agency touts progress

Secretary Laura Howard of the Kansas Department for Children and Families. (Tammy Ljungblad/tljungblad@kcstar.com)

Dozens of Kansas foster children slept in offices overnight last year, experienced too many night-to-night placements and for some, mental health needs weren’t met soon enough.

That’s what an independent monitor found in the first report measuring how well Kansas is following the settlement agreement in a class action lawsuit aimed at improving the state’s troubled child welfare system. This first report measures Kansas’ performance in the calendar year 2021.

Of the 14 measurable outcomes, the monitor — Judith Meltzer, president of the Center for the Study of Social Policy — found that Kansas has met five of them, including the requirement to reduce the number of placements for youth. The state failed to meet seven, the report said, and is in the process of meeting another. And one more couldn’t be determined because of “data issues.”

Those working to improve the system that has been struggling for years said the focus needs to be on the areas where the state didn’t hit the mark this first year after the settlement. Two of the most critical outcomes not met pertain to children who may have serious behavioral health issues and development needs, who are often hard to place.

Those children ended up sleeping in child welfare offices overnight, some for multiple nights in a row, and others experienced night-to-night placements leaving them without a stable place to stay.

“It’s always disappointing when the system doesn’t improve fast enough,” said Teresa Woody, litigation director of Kansas Appleseed, one of five entities that filed the lawsuit on behalf of the state’s foster children. “On the other hand we do understand you can’t go from zero to 60 in this kind of a system very quickly.

“We are happy about the improvements and recognize there’s a lot of improvement that has to occur going forward and that is going to take some investment in the system. It can’t just be done by one branch of the system. You can’t wave a magic wand and make those resources appear.”

The state met the requirements to track youth incarceration, establish a community advisory board, reduce the number of placements for foster youth, ensure the majority of youth are in stable placement and amend state contracts to include immediate mandates.

In regard to placements, the report said that children in care “experienced a rate of 5.84 moves per 1,000 days” which was significantly better than the benchmark set, which was seven moves per 1,000 days.

The report also showed that 86% of kids in Kansas’ care were in “stable placements” during 2021. The benchmark was 80 percent.

Local advocates and two national children’s rights organizations sued in November 2018 alleging that children in Kansas had been treated so poorly that they had suffered mentally or run away from foster homes.

In some cases, the suit said, they have been trafficked for sex, sexually abused inside adoptive homes or in one instance reportedly raped inside a child welfare office.

Leecia Welch, deputy legal director with Children’s Rights, which helped file the suit, said she was “pleasantly surprised” by the improvements made in the placement stability numbers.

“So I think that offsets the disappointment in some of the other areas a little bit,” Welch told reporters Monday.

Officials with the Department for Children and Families and others inside Gov. Laura Kelly’s administration insist that progress has been made. And that the settlement is meant to measure gradual, year to year progress and not an overnight transformation.

“There’s more work to be done, but this report shows we are headed in the right direction,” Kelly said in a news release. “... My administration inherited a broken child welfare system that had an unacceptable number of children in care, a lack of placement stability, and limited prevention services.”

Kelly said that under her administration, the state has about 1,300 fewer children in care and more children are in stable placements and aren’t being moved as often.

DCF Secretary Laura Howard told The Star she felt “really good about the progress the report shows,” especially in the area of placement stability, a benchmark the state made in 2021.

“Would I have liked to have met every goal in the first year? Of course I would,” Howard said. “(But) I feel good about the progress that we’ve made. And I feel good about the trajectory we’re on in terms of the improvement we’ve made even where we might not have quite met the mark that was set for that first year.”

As she runs for re-election, Kelly’s Republican opponent, Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, has attacked the governor over her handling of the foster care system. Schmidt has called for codifying Kelly’s division of the child advocate into statute but has offered no other solutions for remedying the system’s defects. Schmidt argued that, in its current form, the office is ineffective.

After the report Schmidt’s campaign doubled down on its criticism.

“Laura Kelly used to say fixing the foster care system was a ‘moral obligation,’ but after serving four years as governor her tune has changed. On her watch, Kansas has paid millions of dollars in legal fees, and after spending millions more on the system itself, still has kids sleeping in contractor offices, is among the worst states nationally for missing foster kids, and now has fallen far short of meeting the specific promises the governor made about fixing the system,” Schmidt’s campaign manager CJ Grover said.

Sen. Molly Baumgardner, a Louisburg Republican, said the report was “not something to be overly proud of.”

Baumgardner said foster care contractors should pay penalties for failing to meet benchmarks.

Included in the seven outcomes that DCF did not meet is the requirement to end the practice of having foster children sleep in child welfare offices overnight.

For calendar year 2021, “DCF had 69 office placements (termed “Failure to Place”) experienced by 53 unique children,” the report said. “None of these placements met DCF’s definition of extraordinary circumstances that would have warranted those placements.”

Rep. Susan Concannon, a Beloit Republican, said she wished the report included a breakdown of why these youth slept overnight in offices. She said she wasn’t surprised by the report.

“What does that tell us about the system as a whole that we are not finding a place for them?” Concannon said. “The fact that it still happens, I guess, raises questions in my mind as to where the breakdown is.”

Baumgardner said she believed the agency had not presented a clear plan for fixing the issue when speaking to lawmakers last week.

Another benchmark not met in the first year is regarding night-to-night placements. By the end of 2021, DCF was required to end the practice.

But, according to the report, the agency had a total of 1,501 night-to-night placements involving 801 children.

“The state does have more work to do in both temporary overnight placements and night-to-night or short-term placements,” according to a news release sent by DCF. “Children who experience a failure to place often have complex developmental, medical, behavioral or safety needs.”

The report also found that the state failed to provide mental health services quick enough after a child is placed. Under the settlement, mental health services must be provided without delay once a child is in permanent placement.

The report found that mental health evaluations only occurred in a timely manner by a qualified professional 34% of the time.

“Addressing mental and behavioral health needs is vital if we are to have a strong child and family well-being system,” Howard said in a release. “We know there is more work to do to strengthen the timely and consistent access to mental health assessments and reviews.”

Baumgardner said the delay in evaluation results in delay in care.

“The biggest issue I think truly that’s hurting us is we don’t know what the delay is from intake to getting that mental health and behavioral health evaluation,” Baumgardner said. “If there’s a delay in just evaluation then there’s going to be a marked delay in getting any services.”

Concannon said she was frustrated by the mental health failures but believed the situation was aggravated by workforce shortages.

“It’s not unexpected to know that we have work to do,” she said. “If we could fix the workforce shortage I think that’s a game changer.”

“It’s certainly not for lack of effort on anyone’s part.”

The Star’s Jonathan Shorman contributed to this report.