Politics & Government

Kansas kids are waiting for psychiatric help. Kelly ‘stunned’ by agency’s lack of action

More than 100 Kansas youth are waiting for residential psychiatric care because of a shortage of treatment beds across the state.

On Tuesday, Gov-elect Laura Kelly voiced displeasure with that.

“I’m stunned, honestly, that your agency has not done anything concrete to deal with that issue,” Kelly told Susan Fout, deputy secretary of the Kansas Department of Aging and Disability Services.

Fout acknowledged the struggles in the system and the difficulty in finding available residential beds.

“We know we’re not doing the service we need to for the youngsters. ... Kids are getting lost,” Fout said.

Kelly won election last month in part on promises to reform the state’s child welfare system and rebuild dysfunctional state agencies. Her comments Tuesday suggest she wants significant changes when she assumes office in January.

Kelly spoke during the final meeting of a task force that will recommend reforms for the child welfare system. The panel has been examining the state’s troubled foster care system for more than a year — resulting in revelations about missing children, poor technology and other problems.

The panel urged lawmakers to provide additional funding for child welfare workers and improve data sharing. Kansas should also provide immediate response to hotline calls and invest in foster home recruitment, among other recommendations.

Kelly, who sits on the task force, voiced frustration with the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services and its response to the lack of available beds in psychiatric residential treatment facilities across the state.

Known as PRTFs, the privately operated centers have the ability to treat children and youth for weeks or months. But their capacity for treatment has diminished substantially over the past several years.

The number of centers has dropped from 17 to 8 since 2011. At the same time, the number of beds fell from 780 to about 280.

Currently, there is a list of 140 children waiting to get into one of the centers.

Fout said the agency has requested funds for a 24-7 crisis hotline. But pressed by Kelly about what KDADS had done specifically related to residential treatment facilities, Fout said “the beds are another story.”

The centers are private organizations, Fout said. So KDADS can ask them to add beds, but can’t force them.

“Honestly, I don’t recall specifically about PRTF,” Fout said of the agency’s budget request.

That answer didn’t satisfy Kelly.

“That has been the topic of conversation for 18 months. We have known prior to that, but certainly 18 months ago, that PRTF beds were a very high priority, that the lack of them is probably what’s creating a lot of the kids in offices, kids in one-night stands — you know, we don’t have any place to put them. We need those PRTF beds,” Kelly said.

Other members of the task force shared Kelly’s frustration.

Sen. Vicki Schmidt, a Topeka Republican who will become the state insurance commissioner in January, lashed out at what she and others viewed as a lack of actions by the agency.

“That’s a failure of government,” Schmidt said. “You’re giving us the same statistics only with increased numbers, and you’re not offering any solutions to us.”

Rep. Linda Gallagher, R-Lenexa, said she’s aware of children in Johnson County who have faced more than a dozen placements and workers still haven’t found a stable home.

“These kids have severe issues and there is absolutely no place for them to go,” Gallagher said.

Fout said Gallagher’s statements were true.

Beyond the shortage of psychiatric treatment beds, Kelly questioned Gina Meier-Hummel, secretary of the Kansas Department for Children and Families, about the connection between welfare eligibility restrictions and the rising numbers of children in foster care. More than 7,500 children are in foster care.

Since 2011, Kansas has reduced the number of months someone can be in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program to 24 months from 36 months. The lifetime limit for the program was reduced from four years to three years.

Researchers at the University of Kansas have found a link between the state’s welfare changes and an increase in the number of children in foster care, though DCF has disputed the link.

“By virtue of what we did … we really put up barriers to folks coming into the system at all, or we kicked them out quickly. We know that’s been part of the reason there’s been so many kids in foster care,” Kelly said.

Meier-Hummel responded that officials at DCF “certainly have been looking internally at all of the policies that are potentially getting in the way of folks” and have ideas to propose to Kelly’s administration.

Kelly has not said who she will choose as DCF secretary, and Meier-Hummel has declined to say whether she wants to remain in the position.

Contributing: Laura Bauer of The Kansas City Star

Jonathan Shorman covers Kansas politics and the Legislature for The Wichita Eagle and The Kansas City Star. He’s been covering politics for six years, first in Missouri and now in Kansas. He holds a journalism degree from the University of Kansas.