TOPEKA — Kansas in 1996 became the first state to privatize its foster care system. The goal? Make the system more responsive to the needs of vulnerable children.
Now, as other states look to follow Kansas' lead, the privatized system is under fire from some lawmakers and from parents who've lost custody of their children.
Parents and grandparents testified during four days of hearings in the Kansas House that the state and its contracted social workers ignored their appeals and took children away without full explanations. They also accuse contractors of keeping children in state custody to drive up their profits.
"This is a very dysfunctional system," said Rep. Mike Kiegerl, R-Olathe, who called for the hearings after receiving dozens of complaints about Kansas foster care. "Some of the things we've heard are just inexcusable."
But officials from the state and its five foster care contractors defended the system with statistics that show dramatic improvement since privatization began. They argued that Kansas' foster care system is now the envy of many states.
"Privatization brought more accountability," said Dusty Buell, director of public policy for Youthville, one of the state's foster care contractors. "That's why many other states look at Kansas as the model they want to follow. They see the data. We should be really proud that we have this in Kansas."
But parents such as Julie Hatcher of Overland Park aren't convinced. She lost custody of her 5-year-old son, Michael, last year.
The state got involved after Hatcher's mother, the boy's grandmother, died. She had received state services, and following her death a worker visited the Hatchers to wrap up some paperwork. The worker noticed the family home was dirty and cluttered. The worker reported it to child welfare officials, who started an investigation.
Hatcher conceded the house was messy, but Hatcher said she was ill, struggling with chronic heart disease. Nevertheless, the state put Michael in foster care and required Hatcher and her husband to clean the house, undergo psychological evaluations, and pay child support to the foster parents.
"We did everything they asked, and they still took him," Hatcher said.
Now, Michael is back in the family home for five days a week. But the Hatchers are still paying child support to help a foster parent who sees Michael two days a week.
Foster family ousted
A foster family from Olathe testified that the state removed them from its foster parent list after they raised concerns about the system.
Marilyn and Jim Dilley had fostered more than a dozen children and adopted one before they applied to adopt a second child, a 4-year-old boy. They were denied, however, after a new caseworker reviewed their application. The Dilleys didn't think there was sufficient reason for the rejection and complained to state lawmakers.
The day after they testified before Kiegerl's committee last fall, they said they were dropped from the state's foster parent list.
"These kinds of things should not happen," Kiegerl said. "That smacks of some kind of retaliation."
Officials from the state and the contractor cannot comment on specific cases, citing confidentiality concerns. But Don Jordan, state secretary of Social and Rehabilitation Services, said his agency investigates each complaint. He insisted that, while not perfect, the system has enough checks and balances to prevent big problems.
"A lot of people want to come in and tell you a heart-wrenching story," Jordan said. "Unfortunate things happen.... But I would ask you to look at where we're scoring against other states."
Numbers tell one story
Since privatization, the number of children removed from homes has dropped. That's proof, contractors argued, that programs to help troubled families keep custody of their children are working. The length of the average stay in foster care is down, too. Meanwhile, the number of adoptions out of foster care has doubled since 1997.
Indeed, a federal study found that Kansas' foster care system scores consistently above the average of 32 states surveyed when it comes to foster child safety, family preservation and child well-being.
Since Kansas privatized its system, other states — including Florida, Nebraska and Colorado — have followed suit. Lawmakers in states such as Oklahoma also are considering legislation to privatize foster care.
Supporters of the system maintain that there will always be parents upset that the state removed a child, or awarded custody of a foster child to someone else. And they acknowledge any system that oversees the cases of more than 5,000 children a year is going to have its critics.
"You have to remember there are always two sides to every story," said Rep. Judy Loganbill of Wichita, the leading Democrat on the committee that conducted the hearings.
The state's five contractors all contend they've improved the system since taking it over. They dismissed allegations that they remove children from homes simply to drum up profits. They noted that their state contracts provide financial incentives for moving children into permanent homes.
"Our goal is not to make money," said the Rev. Edward Fellhauer, president of St. Francis Community Services, which has the foster care contract for western Kansas. "Our goal is to reintegrate families."
Lawmakers such as Kiegerl, however, aren't being swayed. He plans to ask for a legislative audit investigating the contractors and Social and Rehabilitation Services, and will push legislation this year designed to improve the system.
One proposal would give judges more power to place a child with a particular guardian or relative, even if it's counter to a caseworker's recommendation. Another measure would require social workers to receive more training.
"I think we've got their attention," Kiegerl said of Social and Rehabilitation Services and its contractors. "But it's not easy taking this on. It's like trying to turn an ocean liner in the Atlantic."