Audit: Kansas foster care system puts children at risk

Posted at 8:22 PM, Jul 27, 2016
and last updated 2016-07-27 21:22:19-04

The Kansas Department of Children and Families' continuing struggles to adequately oversee private foster care contractors is putting children in the system at risk, according to a state audit of the agency released Wednesday.

Shortly after the 59-page audit was released, two Democratic senators called for department Secretary Phyllis Gilmore to resign. She defended the agency's efforts to ensure children's safety and said she did not intend to resign.

The Legislative Post Audit found that the agency had implemented only one of nine recommendations it received after a 2013 assessment of services. The department also doesn't ensure that background checks of individuals in foster homes, adoptive homes and those where children are returned to their families are as frequent and thorough as they should be; doesn't complete all required monthly visits to foster homes; doesn't determine if families have the financial resources needed to provide for the children; and approves nearly all requests for exceptions to rules governing foster care homes, auditors said.

Some state lawmakers had sought the audit after reports that children died or were mistreated while in the agency's care. The audit did not address allegations that the agency discriminates against same-sex couples when deciding where to place children. A second audit addressing privatization efforts at DCF is scheduled to be released later this year.

Auditors said their findings "indicate that DCF continues to take a hands-off approach to monitoring contractors and perhaps focuses too much on whether federal outcomes are met and not on the specific steps needed to meet them." Frequent turnover of DCF staff has led to low morale and affected employees' ability to do their jobs effectively, auditors said, and some case-workers also complained about inadequate training. Auditors also criticized the agency's record-keeping.

Five children in the foster care system died during the 2015 fiscal year, with only one death attributed to mistreatment, according to a November report. Other causes of fatalities included illness and car accidents. One child died because of mistreatment in foster care in the 2014 fiscal year, while another child in the DCF system died that year because of mistreatment while in a family member's care. Five children in DCF's system died in total that year.

Gilmore conceded the agency has room for improvement but contended its safety record was among the best in the nation. She cited a Child & Federal Services Review that found Kansas ranked second in the nation in protecting children from abuse and neglect, although not all states have completed the review.

"That is borne out in our records, which show very few child deaths of those in custody from maltreatment," Gilmore said in an interview before the audit was released. "We absolutely want no deaths. One is too many and grieves our heart greatly."

She agreed the agency's turnover is too high and hoped a salary increase approved by the Legislature and an emphasis on improving staff training will help retain employees.

But Democratic Reps. Jim Ward and Jarrod Ousley said in a statement that Gilmore should resign.

"I'm not comfortable gambling the future of our children in unsafe home environments," Ward said. "Now is the time to step up and get serious about improving a broken system that is failing Kansas kids. The first step toward that is getting new leadership at DCF."

Gov. Sam Brownback defended the agency and Gilmore.

"The men and women at DCF work hard every day to protect our children through these complex and very personal cases," he said in a statement. "It is important that we all provide them with our full support. Secretary Gilmore will continue to have my full support as she works to address the legitimate record-keeping and contractor accountability concerns cited in the post audit report and, most importantly, to improve the overall foster care system for Kansas children."