Legislators may ramp up scrutiny of foster care system

Concerns include record number of children, oversight of contractors

by Allison Kite, KHI News Service

by Allison Kite/KHI News Service
by Allison Kite/KHI News Service

A Kansas foster care system that continues to serve record numbers of children already is under scrutiny from legislators and would receive more oversight under a bill making its way through the Legislature.

The House Committee on Children and Seniors this week sent to the full House a bill that would establish a task force to evaluate the system.

The task force established under House Bill 2585 would be charged with reviewing the level of oversight the Kansas Department for Children and Families has over foster care contractors and their selection. The task force also would evaluate whether a group of attorneys, judges, foster parents and parents with reintegrated children would help address concerns with the system.

Proponents say the bill is a start to resolving their concerns about treatment of foster children and whether the system has an adequate number of foster parents.

Five children died while in the care of the system during the 2015 fiscal year. One child’s death was the result of maltreatment.

On average, 6,257 children were in out-of-home foster care placements during fiscal year 2015. For the current fiscal year, the average is 6,560.

That number has been steadily climbing since 2012 when it was 5,182. Theresa Freed, a DCF spokeswoman, attributed the growth to a larger number of children staying in the foster care system for prolonged periods of time rather than an increase in the number of children entering the system.

DCF submitted neutral testimony on HB 2585 that said the task force would duplicate oversight efforts by several federal and state agencies. The department is facing an audit from the Legislature’s independent auditing team and must submit a two-year improvement plan to federal officials by March 22.

Legislators question privatized system

Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, a Wichita Democrat who testified Tuesday in support of the bill, said later in an interview that she believes the increase in foster care children is partially due to the difficulty low-income parents can have getting their children back after they enter the system. Parents in that situation have contacted her for help, prompting her to support a revamped system that would better serve children, she said.

Jane Rhys, a volunteer with Court Appointed Special Advocates, also spoke Tuesday before the committee. She said children in the foster care system may be moved frequently or mistreated.

Children Rhys has advocated for have been moved through as many as seven foster homes in two years. Children who had been abused were adopted by a foster parent who then abused them again. She said the experience makes it difficult for the children to establish good relationships with adults.

“After every single visit I make every month, the first thing they say is, ‘Are you going to come back?’” she said.

Rhys expressed concern about the caseload for state employees who work in the foster care system because she said staff numbers have declined in recent years.

“How many children can you reasonably expect — given, too, that they aren’t all sitting here in Topeka, that they’re all over the state — can they possibly keep track of and know what’s going on with them? I think we need to find that out and then it needs to be funded adequately,” she said.

If there aren’t enough resources allocated toward these children now, she said, the state will have to pay for them later through the Department of Corrections.

The committee also heard concerns from several people about a shortage of foster parents. That issue has caught the attention of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is considering a bill that would loosen requirements for foster parents and create a category known as CARE families. But that bill could jeopardize $20 million in federal foster care funding.

Mary Martin, a community activist and CASA volunteer in Kansas City, Kan., said privatization of the state’s foster care system done in 1997 could be part of the issue.

Rep. Susie Swanson, a Clay Center Republican, said that the compensation given to foster parents can draw the focus away from caring for children and toward personal gains.

“It seems to me that when you make it a business that’s for profit, it changes the focus of what we do,” Swanson said.

Martin also told the committee that there are plenty of people who would be willing to foster children in need, but DCF picks and chooses which families it will allow to take the children.

“The foster parents are available. It’s just that this agency here is not an agency that is warm and welcoming,” Martin said.

Bias allegations linger

Martin’s testimony echoed some recent allegations about bias against gay couples in the state’s foster care and adoption system.

Last month the Legislative Post Audit Committee declined to authorize an audit to look into the bias claims. Instead, it voted to encourage foster care agencies to consider family structure as one factor in determining family placement for foster children.

Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook, a Republican from Shawnee, said at the time that the process is based on the child’s best interest, and evidence shows children do better in some types of families than others. She declined to elaborate on what she meant by family structure, though Democrats on the committee said the measure could discriminate against same-sex couples.

Before approving Pilcher-Cook’s motion, the committee amended it to specify that the state’s foster care contractors should use peer-reviewed academic studies as evidence. But some experts say that recommendation may run into difficulties due to a lack of studies on the effects of family structure on children in foster care.

Becci Akin, an assistant professor of social welfare at the University of Kansas, said most research has compared foster family placements to group homes or placements with relatives.

Akin said the most significant factor in placement stability is whether a child has mental health problems and whether a caregiver is prepared to handle those needs.

“If they really wanted to effect positive outcomes for kids in foster care, they should prepare the caregiver to improve their mental health,” she said.

Michael Rosenfeld, an assistant professor of sociology at Stanford University, has done some research on educational outcomes for children in various family structures, but said he didn’t know of any work looking specifically at foster children who were placed in various types of homes.

His 2010 study, based on 2000 Census data, found that children raised by cohabitating gay or lesbian couples were more likely to be held back a grade than children of married heterosexual couples, but less likely to have to repeat a grade than children living with a single parent or a cohabitating heterosexual couple. The difference wasn’t statistically significant, however, after adjusting for household income, race and whether the child was adopted or a stepchild.

“My strong presumption based on my own research and my reading of other people’s research is that the structure of foster families (single parent, married heterosexual couple, unmarried heterosexual couple, same-sex couple) would matter much less than the willingness of the parents to take the foster child, and the parents’ resources, and parenting skills,” he said in an email.

— Writer Megan Hart contributed to this story.

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