The head of the Kansas Department for Children and Families pushed back Tuesday against claims that the agency isn’t doing enough to protect children.
DCF Secretary Phyllis Gilmore’s testimony before the House Committee on Children and Seniors came less than a week after another committee approved an audit into whether the agency is adequately ensuring the safety of children in the foster care system.
The state’s foster care system is one of the safest in the nation, Gilmore said. “I know that’s not what’s reported,” she added.
“Children die, but they are not in our custody,” she said.
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Five children died in the foster care system during the 2015 fiscal year, which ended in June; only one death was attributed to maltreatment, according to a November report. Other reasons for fatalities included illness and car accidents.
One child died because of maltreatment in foster care in the 2014 fiscal year, while another child in the DCF system died that year because of maltreatment while in a family member’s care. A total of five children in DCF’s system died that year.
Rep. Ponka-We Victors, D-Wichita, listed the names of several children who died after DCF had been contacted about possible safety issues, including a child in the Kansas City area whose bones were found amid pigs in November.
Victors asked if this had to do with a shortage of social workers. “They’re just overworked and underpaid,” she said, noting that the secretary had testified about the need for more social workers and that the state does not pay social workers a competitive salary compared to other states.
Gilmore said the agency does not have authority to take children into custody on its own; it needs approval from a judge. She blamed the court system for delays that had led to children’s deaths.
Rep. Connie O’Brien, R-Tonganoxie, the committee’s chair, said a foster care oversight committee will look into questions of safety and other issues. “We need to find out for sure if privatization was a good idea. That’s the main thing,” she said.
The state privatized its foster care system in the late 1990s, and the most recent contracts for KVC Behavioral HealthCare and St. Francis Community Services were approved in 2013.
Gilmore had said earlier during her testimony that the agency receives more than 65,000 calls regarding children and that about 56 percent of those calls are deemed serious enough to be assigned to a case worker.
She called recent allegations that the agency has discriminated against same-sex couples in foster care and adoption cases a distraction.
The agency had objected last week to a proposed question about whether it has discriminated against same-sex couples, and the question was dropped from the audit approved by lawmakers.
The question asked: “What are DCF’s formal policies and actual practices regarding the placement of foster care and adoptive children with same-sex couples, and how do they compare to those in other states?”
Rep. Jarrod Ousley, D-Overland Park, asked why the agency had objected to that question. Gilmore responded that the question was “unbelievably accusatory.”
When Ousley tried to read the question’s text, Gilmore spoke over him and O’Brien ended that line of questioning.
Rep. Erin Davis, R-Olathe, said the issue of same-sex parents had been overly politicized by people on both sides.
Tom Witt, executive director of the LGBT rights group Equality Kansas, disagreed with that after the meeting and said that DCF has been “taking children raised from birth by same-sex couples … for ideological and political reasons.”
Gilmore had emphasized earlier the agency’s preference for keeping biological siblings together and reuniting children with their biological parents whenever possible. She said that foster parents sometimes lost sight of this fact and referenced cases that have been highlighted by the media.
“The foster care home is not necessarily intended to be the adoptive home,” she said.