Politics & Government

Some Kansas children sleep in offices while waiting for foster homes

Phyllis Gilmore, Department for Children and Families Secretary, says the agency doesn’t want foster children to have to stay overnight in offices.
Phyllis Gilmore, Department for Children and Families Secretary, says the agency doesn’t want foster children to have to stay overnight in offices. Topeka Capital-Journal

Children have stayed overnight in the offices of Kansas foster care contractors more than 100 times over the past year because places able or willing to accept them couldn't be found.

In one case, a human trafficking survivor stayed overnight in an office.

The past year is the first time the contractors have ever kept children overnight in offices, the organizations say.

“It is actually an office because we don’t want to normalize this in any way. So they would end up on a couch or a makeshift bed,” said Rachel Marsh, director of public policy at Saint Francis Community Services, one of the contractors.

Saint Francis and KVC Kansas provided figures on how often children are staying in offices during a meeting of the state Child Welfare Task Force on Tuesday.

Some months, only a small number of children stayed overnight in office settings. In September 2016, only one child stayed overnight. But in April, 39 children stayed overnight.

In June – the last month where data was provided – 19 children stayed overnight.

According to the contractors, the children who are staying overnight often have psychiatric issues or behave aggressively. Some have been placed in psychiatric residential treatment facilities repeatedly or are waiting for beds in treatment centers to open up. They stay in offices after the contractors have tried and failed to find overnight housing for them.

As an example, Saint Francis accounted for 31 of the children staying overnight in April. It told the task force that the children include those with aggressive behaviors including “assault, sexual aggression; children with juvenile offender charges; children at risk for running from placement, children with suicidal and self-harming behaviors” and other characteristics. A human trafficking survivor was also noted.

“It really is the number of kids in care, if it exceeds the number of beds or it exceeds the type of beds a child needs. At some point, there’s only so many phone calls you can make and everyone tells you ‘no,’” Marsh said.

The Kansas Department for Children and Families oversees the foster care system. Agency secretary Phyllis Gilmore said “we’re addressing it in many ways,” when asked about the overnight stays.

“Well of course I’m sorry that there’s ever any staying overnight in any office,” Gilmore said. “Certainly we don’t want that at all.”

After being asked about the figures, a DCF spokeswoman emphasized “this is a fairly small number of kids we’re looking at.”

Gilmore said the increase in overnight stays is related to legislation passed in 2016 that she says shifted children out of the juvenile offender system and into the state’s child welfare system. She called the office stays an unintended consequence of the bill.

The juvenile justice reform bill lawmakers passed that year with large majorities was intended to reduce the reliance on detention and other out-of-home placements for low-risk juvenile offenders. The bill sought to keep more low-level offenders at home and have them participate in community-based educational, vocational and therapy programs.

Under the law, the number of youth sent to out-of-home facilities is expected to drop by about 60 percent over five years. That would save about $72 million over that time, money to be reinvested in community-based programs, according to projections at the time.

Rep. Russ Jennings, R-Lakin, said the intention of the law was to not put children in need of care in juvenile detention centers.

If that is contributing to the difficulty the contractors are facing, it’s an ordinary and natural consequence of the law, said Jennings, who heads the House’s Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee.

“I would disagree that it’s an unintended consequence,” Jennings said in response to Gilmore’s comment. “The absolute intended consequence was to assure that children in need of care are not placed in juvenile detention centers.”

It “certainly wasn’t probably our intent to have in them held in offices of contractors, but it was the intent to remove them from detention centers.”

Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, said she suspects that children have stayed overnight in contractor offices even before the past year.

“This is nothing new,” she said.

In April, a state audit found that Kansas has enough open beds statewide to accommodate foster children but that 40 Kansas counties did not have enough beds to accommodate children needing placement. Many counties don’t have enough licensed foster homes, the audit found.

As of June 2016, more than 550 children in foster care were in homes more than 100 miles from the homes they were taken from, according to the audit.

Marsh said the state needs more foster care homes, including homes able to accept children with psychiatric challenges.

Christie Appelhanz, director of Children’s Alliance of Kansas, called for a greater focus on keeping children out of the foster system if possible. That includes making sure that children have access to services they need, such as substance abuse treatment and mental healthcare.

“If we can decrease the pressure on the system at the front end we can really focus on those kids who have to be in foster care,” Appelhanz said.

Contributing: Edward Eveld of The Kansas City Star