When children are suffering or in danger, we must act with conviction.
Children placed in foster care need to be in a safe place of comfort and caring, not one of neglect and abuse. The state of Kansas has a moral obligation to protect all children.
Over the past several years, the state failed. The deliberate dismantling of foster-care services by the past administration put many at-risk children in harm’s way. As a state senator, I was first to bring attention to the shocking revelation of the Department for Children and Families not knowing how many foster-care children were missing on its watch.
The system clearly was overwhelmed by children and families in need, yet resources were stripped from DCF — even as the number of children in foster care had risen 36 percent from 2012 to 2017.
Instability in the foster-care system meant more runaways, and more youths vulnerable to sex trafficking and other tragic outcomes.
Only significant action could bring an end to such a crisis.
In January, as governor, I called for swift and meaningful change to a ravaged system that was failing vulnerable children.
My first act was to appoint a Secretary with decades of high-level human services work in Kansas. No one is more committed, or better prepared to tackle the monumental challenge of fixing the foster-care system than DCF Secretary Laura Howard.
I directed Secretary Howard to rebuild DCF and implement short- and long-term strategies to protect children and strengthen families.
She immediately hired more than 40 social workers to work with children and their families. As for the commitment to long-term programs and services needed to deliver realistic remedies to family problems, we’re now using Family First Prevention Services proven to keep children out of the foster-care system.
A grant program with a federal match, Family First focuses on evidence-based services in the areas of mental health, substance use disorder, parenting skills and navigation of resources for “kinship” foster care by relatives or close family friends.
DCF has ensured that many of these new services are available in every part of the state. I am very proud that Kansas is one of the first states in the nation to implement the ground-breaking Family First program.
DCF also is utilizing Family Finding, which is designed to connect children in need with loving adults and families. Family Finding training can increase the number of children placed in “kinship” homes that maintain important relationships for children, tend to be more stable and reduce the likelihood of emotional trauma to a child. The approach also helps keep siblings together and improves a youngster’s sense of identity and security.
Another step in modernizing the system saw DCF implement a pair of proven Practice Models. Through Team Decision Making, DCF works with families and community service providers to determine what’s truly best for a child. The Signs of Safety approach aims to enhance safety and reduce risk by focusing on a family’s strengths, resources and support networks.
This new set of services has produced encouraging results. The number of missing or runaway children in foster care has steadily declined and we now have measures in place to enhance transparency on this issue that was lacking in the prior administration.
DCF also created a special response team to not only find missing children, but also help identify the appropriate services they need to put them on a positive life trajectory.
I have been encouraged by the bipartisan approach to fixing this mess. We all can be heartened by positive steps forward — yet no one should be satisfied.
Secretary Howard knows there still is much work to do. Even as the stepped-up focus and investment promise more positive outcomes, the far-reaching damage to our foster-care system cannot be fixed overnight.
We need our weakened foster-care system to stand strong once again. Every child’s life is precious.
My administration won’t rest until all children are in loving homes, safe and sound. They count on us, and we won’t let them down.
Laura Kelly is the 48th governor of Kansas.