Shortly after Gov. Sam Brownback took office in 2011, there were almost 5,200 children in Kansas’ foster care system. Today, there are more than 6,900 – the highest in state history.
The prospect of adding 1,700 kids to a system that was already stretched thin was beyond most policymakers’ imagination six years ago.
The number of available foster homes hasn’t kept pace with the number of kids coming into the system, children are staying in the system longer and staff turnover is through the roof. It’s not unusual for high-needs children to sit in a contractor’s office for a day or two or even three because there’s nowhere else for them to go.
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This isn’t good. Abused and neglected children don’t fare well without first being able to feel safe, stable, attached, protected and valued. This doesn’t happen when they are put in a stranger’s home that’s hours away from family, friends and schoolmates; are assigned a new case worker every two or three months; and never know if they’re coming or going.
Recent legislative audits have found that the Department for Children and Families has a lousy track record when it comes to looking out for the kids in its care.
Phyllis Gilmore, the chief of the department, has been quick to assure the public that Kansas has one of the safest child welfare systems in the country. She’s right; very few children die while they’re in the state’s care.
But she hasn’t explained why record numbers of children are being removed from their parents’ care.
The methamphetamine and opioid epidemics are factors. But parental drug abuse isn’t new. What’s different is that over the past six years the department has cut low-income parents’ access to food stamps, cash assistance and child care assistance.
At the same time, state spending on mental health services has been slashed, residential programs for the state’s most seriously disturbed children are saddled with long waiting lists, and funding for substance-abuse programs has been, at best, flat.
The safety net that once kept a fair number of kids out of the system is now a sieve.
Dave Ranney is a retired Kansas journalist.