According to the most recent data, 6,522 children are in foster care.
In the first month of this fiscal year (July of 2015) 388 children were removed from their homes and put in the care of the state. That same month, 366 exited the system. A child will “exit” for several reasons: returned to biological parent or caregiver, adopted, or aged out.
The majority of kids who enter the system are removed from their homes because of abuse (17%), neglect (16%), parental drug abuse (11%) or lack of supervision (10%).
Some say the number of children entering the system shows the system is working: more people are reporting and more children are getting the help they need.
But others say, not so fast.
Nancy Butters was a foster parent for 17 years. She and her husband cared for 130 children, some of them for one night, others for months. The couple adopted four children who started in their care. They no longer foster children.
Butters had good experiences as a foster mom, especially early on. She felt like she got to know the people assigned to help her and the children for which she provided care. But, she says that’s changed.
“We got to the point we were just so discouraged because we felt like we could help them temporarily but we wanted to help them for life,” said Butters.
Currently, foster parents in Kansas don’t legally get to help decide the future of a child in the system. That differs depending on the state.
“I think there’s a belief in that foster parents have ulterior motive. That we’re trying to adopt the children,” said Butters.
Butters believes some are concerned a foster parent would potentially interfere with the goal of making sure children have a chance with their biological parents.
“If I was ever down on my luck I would sure hope I was given every opportunity to get my kids back. However, to assume automatically, indisputably, no matter what, that biological family is the number one best choice is a mistake,” said Butters, passionately.
Butters also has concerns about what she describes as a lack of experience in new social workers assigned to children in care.
“What you end up having young people coming right out of college who are trained and who are educated, who have learned and read stories and know about these situations. And I think they have great hearts and they come into it and they want to do the right thing for these kids. But, the bottom line is they're typically single. They don't have children of their own. Perhaps they didn't grow up with a lot of siblings or other kids around,” she said.
The Secretary of the Department of Children and Families agrees.
Secretary Phyllis Gilmore says her department is currently looking at perhaps increasing salaries to recruit and keep good workers.
“We’re looking at anything and everything that is a consideration for keeping and recruiting social workers,” said Gilmore. “So if more money will do that we want to do that, as well.”
Secretary Gilmore says while her department hears a tremendous amount about success stories within the system, she does hear her share of criticisms, too.
“One of the issues we hear this, and it might even be 50/50, those who say they have problems communication with the contractors,” said Gilmore.
Foster Care in Kansas|
Contractors handle foster care for the state of Kansas. St. Francis Community Services has the contract for the western side of the state and the Wichita area, KVC Health Systems has the contract for the eastern side of the state and Kansas City.
Kansas was the first state to privatize foster care. That was 20 years ago. Very few states have followed suit.
“Let me give a disclaimer, I was a legislator when the state privatized and I did vote for it. Now, having said that, we’re of course 20 years down the road and there’s a lot of hindsight and I see a lot of issues that certainly do need attention,” said Sec. Gilmore.
The state’s legislative coordinating council voted recently to create a Special Committee on Foster Care Adequacy.
Here are the names of the legislators appointed to that committee:
Representative Erin Davis – Johnson County
Representative Willie Davis – Wyandotte County
Senator Laura Kelly – Shawnee County
Senator Forest Knox – Wilson County
Representative Connie O’Brien – Leavenworth County
Senator Mary Pilcher – Johnson County
Representative Annie Tietze – Shawnee County
Authorities tell us the committee will meet one day in mid-November, but that is not on the state’s committee calendar yet.
Secretary Gilmore knows there are issues, but doesn’t think the system is as bad as some might believe.
“Is it perfect? No. Do we need to improve? Yes. But I don’t think it’s as awful like maybe some legislators believe,” Sec. Gilmore said.
Christa Dubill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.