Several Kansas children each month are spending at least one night in a foster care contractor’s office while they wait for a home in a child welfare system that struggles with low capacity, according to new data presented Tuesday to an oversight committee.
Since the beginning of this year, 98 children have had to spend a night in the office of either KVC Health Systems or Saint Francis Community Services, the contractors that administer the foster care system, according to data the companies provided to state’s Child Welfare Task Force. That adds to a report earlier this year that several children stayed in an office one month.
In April, 31 children — including one human trafficking survivor — spent at least one night at a Saint Francis office.
The task force is made up of state lawmakers and members of the child welfare system and tasked with looking at the state’s system for protecting children.
For some lawmakers and advocates, the problem calls the adequacy of that system into question. An audit earlier this year found both contractors struggling to employ enough case managers and that there were not sufficient beds in some cities and counties, though there were enough statewide.
Republican Rep. Linda Gallagher, a member of the committee, said she thought the Department for Children and Families needed to better oversee contractors and needed more money to do so.
“In instances where beds are lacking or services are lacking on the part of the contractors, DCF absolutely has to be involved,” Gallagher said.
Fellow committee member and Democratic Sen. Laura Kelly said she was more worried about whether children were safe than the number who spent the night in offices, but she said she thought more needed to be done to keep children in their families’ homes.
“I would rather have these kids spending the night in a caseworker’s office, where they’re safe and cared for, than dumped off some place just to bring the numbers down,” Kelly said.
Christie Appelhanz, executive director of the Children’s Alliance, said she was worried about the capacity of the child welfare system.
“The fact that we can’t find placements really shows that we have to address the number of kids coming into the system and we have to address the number of kids coming out of the system,” Appelhanz said.
Children end up staying in offices overnight when they are removed from their families but contractors cannot immediately match them with foster homes. Rachel Marsh, executive director for public policy at Saint Francis, and Lindsey Stephenson, vice president of operations for KVC, agreed there are not enough facilities to place children who need either a home or admission to a psychiatric treatment facility.
Kansas Department for Children and Families Secretary Phyllis Gilmore said the agency was working to increase the number of foster care homes available.
“Obviously we do not want that to ever happen, and we are sorry as we’re addressing it in many ways,” Gilmore said.
Kathy Armstrong, assistant general counsel for prevention and protective services at DCF, told members of the task force DCF was especially focused on increasing the number of foster homes for certain groups of children, such as older kids or those with special needs.
“Ages 13 and over is one of them that we really want to focus on recruiting foster homes specifically, certain groups that have been challenging to find placements for,” Armstrong said.
Many of the children who stayed overnight in contractors’ offices had severe behavioral problems, such as assault or sexual aggression or a history of juvenile offense charges, running away from placement or suicidal or self-harm, according to contractor data. Some of the children had also been screened to be placed in a psychiatric residential treatment facility but were waiting for space to open.
Applehanz said the state used to have 11 of such facilities but is down to eight.
“I think more needs to be done for those high-needs kids because it’s really difficult to find a placement for a kid we’ve said can’t be safe at home,” Applehanz said.
Sen. Barbara Bollier, a Mission Hills Republican, said she would like to know how effectively mental health care is being delivered for children in need by the managed care organizations that administer the state’s privatized Medicaid program, KanCare.
Gilmore also pointed to a sweeping juvenile justice reform bill passed last year that was aimed at reducing the number of children in detention facilities and said it brought more kids with behavioral problems into foster care.
“Then our foster care system is not able to deal with those individuals that have more behavioral issues than just the normal foster child,” Gilmore said.
Lakin Republican Rep. Russ Jennings, chair of the Corrections and Juvenile Justice committee, said the reform outlawed a previous practice that allowed children who needed placement to be placed in juvenile detention centers.
Marilyn Jacobson, the chief financial officer and general counsel for KVC Health Systems, said the issue often arises when children are referred to foster care system because of late-night family disputes or for running away. She said she thought the system would always struggle with those issues.
Jacobson said even one child spending the night in an office is too many and that KVC needed to look at why they end up there to prevent it. But the number of children spending the night in KVC offices has risen since last year.
Appelhanz said she would like to see the system focus more on providing services to keep families together and preventing the need for foster care placement.