Foster care is the state-sanctioned safe haven for children who have experienced abuse or neglect, so the recent death of a 10-month-old foster child in a hot car stands out during a tragic few months in Wichita that also saw 3-year-old and 19-month-old boys die in separate accidental shootings and a 3-year-old girl allegedly murdered.
A Wichita police affidavit says that after Seth Jackson left his foster daughter in a car parked on South Topeka on July 24, he and her other foster parent smoked marijuana, ate pizza and watched “Game of Thrones” inside their home – until two hours later, when a baby’s cry on the show brought to mind the foster child, by then unresponsive. Jackson, whose three other foster children were living at the home with two adopted children, has been charged with first-degree murder.
After subjecting foster homes sponsored by subcontractor TFI to inspections, the state recently allowed placements to resume while continuing to investigate the death. “It appears the recent tragedy is a rare exception to an otherwise strong record of foster-care child safety in Kansas,” said Phyllis Gilmore, secretary of the Kansas Department for Children and Families.
But the first death from maltreatment in foster care in Kansas since 2006 raises questions for state leaders, including the child-welfare overseers in the Legislature. Among them:
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Shouldn’t a prospective foster parent have to pass a drug test, and perhaps be subjected to ongoing random tests once children are in the home? The reasons against such testing expressed in an Eagle article – including that it is costly and often inaccurate – were dismissed as the 2013 Legislature voted to drug-test people who receive welfare or unemployment benefits. Who could argue the public purpose of that testing is more important than keeping children in state custody out of the homes of drug users?
Is there enough state oversight of subcontractors? The responsibility for how the contractors and subcontractors are placing children in 2,600 foster homes statewide rests with DCF. And because child welfare is veiled in confidentiality by necessity, Kansans have little ability to monitor and assess the system.
How well is the foster-care system handling the record number of children in state custody, and what is behind the increases? In June there were 7,129 such children statewide, including 1,661 in the Wichita region. Saint Francis Community Services, the state’s foster-care contractor for the Wichita area, said in a recent news release that a lack of local foster families had meant that more than 265 Sedgwick County children were staying in foster homes in other counties. Can the state do more?
Legislators as well as Brownback administration officials should use the recent hot-car death as an opportunity to assess and improve the foster-care system. No matter how rare it is that a foster child dies in Kansas, it happens too often.
For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman