Politics & Government

Neighbors slam plan to open a foster care group home near Haysville

Wichita social worker makes the case to open foster care group home for teenage offenders

Miranda Miller made the case for opening a neighborhood foster care group home for teenage offenders at a Wichita-Sedgwick County Planning Commission meeting.
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Miranda Miller made the case for opening a neighborhood foster care group home for teenage offenders at a Wichita-Sedgwick County Planning Commission meeting.

Residents of rural Sedgwick County are trying to stop a for-profit boys home from opening in their neighborhood.

The boys would be foster children between the ages of 12 and 18 with and without criminal pasts who have a pattern of “antisocial, oppositional, defiant, aggressive, abusive, impulsive or high risk” behavior, according to the Kansas Department for Children and Families criteria for admission.

Andrea Henschel, a social worker in foster care services at St. Francis Ministries, bought a three-bedroom house on Hydraulic Street between Haysville and Derby last summer and wants to change it from a single-family residence to a group home for the boys.

Neighbors worry the home will bring crime and lower property values.

But their objections might be moot. Unless Henschel fixes a groundwater flooding issue at the house, the county won’t grant her a permit to open the home in the first place.

The proposed boys home is in the same area where the Sedgwick County Commission declined to offer groundwater flooding relief last week. Henschel’s request for a permit is expected to go before the commission in mid-July.

A staff report from the Metropolitan Area Planning Commission cited “significant concerns” about flooding and water damage at the home. Planning staff also said the proposed use of the home would have “detrimental impacts on nearby properties.”

Henschel said the concerns are unfounded and that her home is a good place for the boys to get a second chance.

“They need this support. They need structure. They need a routine. I just would love to offer that to them,” she said at a planning meeting last month. The planning commission approved the permit, under the condition Henschel waterproofs the basement and gets a super-majority (4 out of 5) vote of approval from the County Commission.

Planning commissioners said the county should grant the permit so the boys can get the treatment and support they need to keep them from entering the prison system as adults.

The kind of group home Henschel wants to open, a youth residential center II, would traditionally house as many as six males. They used to be used heavily by juvenile corrections but are now part of the foster care system.

Henschel’s boys home would also be available for emergency overnight placements, according to her business plan.

The number of foster children in Kansas has grown by 19%, or about 1,500 children, in the last five years, outpacing the number of available spaces.

At least 7,614 children were in Kansas Department for Children and Families custody at the end of May, according to the agency’s data.

Eric Smith, a DCF spokesman, said the agency is looking for alternatives to group homes that keep children in a family setting.

“DCF and partner agencies’ goal is for children and youth to live with relatives and when a relative is not available, live in a family based setting foster home,” Smith wrote in an email. “We want to build capacity for alternatives to group care and strive to have children and youth with relatives and in a family based setting.”

Henschel said she views her proposed facility, which will have two boys in each room, as a family home and that it would allow the boys to stay near where their families live, making family visits easier.

“I want to treat these children like I can treat my own,” Henschel said.

A flood of concerns

Henschel’s home has a problem. Like many of her neighbors’ homes, the basement floods, and groundwater can rise to 4 feet inside the home, according to a report by the Wichita Area Builders Association. The association looked at the house in 2017 when a previous owner asked for assistance from Sedgwick County.

The report recommended filling in the basement, adding that no sump pump on the market could handle the groundwater problem at Henschel’s house.

The home sits in an area with a high water table that rises with heavy rain, causing water to rush into basements and damage homes. The Sedgwick County Commission last month asked Derby to turn on two nearby, abandoned water wells to help lower the water table.

But that fell apart when the commission found out it would cost the county $70,000 to help Derby repair the pumps for those wells.

Before Henschel can open the boys home, she’ll have to show the flooding problem has been addressed, according to the terms of her conditional use permit.

Bob Kaplan, a Wichita attorney representing some of Henschel’s neighbors, said the county’s decision boils down to a question of whether the site is suitable for its intended use.

“We’re putting young men in this house . . . and it’s absolutely not suitable for its present use at this present time,” Kaplan said.

Henschel said she’s been living in the home with her two young children and multiple foster children since fall without any issues.

She would not allow a reporter or photographer from The Eagle to see the inside of her proposed group home.

“I feel it is in the best interest of the foster children in my home to decline your request for a tour due to confidentiality,” she wrote in an email.

‘They already live there’

More than 20 people showed up at a planning commission meeting in June to air a list of problems with the proposal. The vast majority said the boys home was a bad fit for the neighborhood, citing concerns about crime, property values and whether Henschel was opening the home as “a business opportunity.”

“I never understood why the woman wants to put a home here, and she never went around the neighborhood at all (or) talked to the neighbors (to) get a feel for how we felt,” said Joe Whaley, who lives nearby.

“It, to me, not knowing any better — it’s strictly a business venture for her, more so than all of this love that she’s putting out.”

Henschel dismissed Whaley’s concerns as unfounded, calling the notion that she’s trying to profit from the boys home “absolutely crazy.”

“I’m not in it for the money. I’m in it because I want to help these children, . . .” she said. “It’s not a business opportunity for me.”

The boys would require 24-hour supervision, and Henschel said she plans to be the primary caregiver. She said her 12 years of working in social services qualifies her to run the facility.

Her nieces, two adult sons and mother would help out as needed, she said. To run the facility, she would eventually need a license from the Kansas Department for Children and Families.

Kelly Smith traveled from Perry, Okla., to urge the planning commission not to approve a permit. She said she has a background in group homes and questioned whether it is a good idea for Henschel and her nieces to keep watch over male teenagers with patterns of bad behavior.

“These kids come from homes of deception, abuse, drugs — that’s all they’ve ever known,” she said. “That’s how they’re going to act.”

Miranda Miller came to the planning meeting to advocate for Henschel’s plan. The two women worked together at St. Francis’ foster care agency two years ago. She said she thinks Henschel would do “an incredible job” running the facility.

Given the state’s troubled child welfare system, she said blocking the facility would be hypocritical.

“If you are outraged, saddened or shocked by the statistics of the missing and dead, but you aren’t willing to let Andrea (Henschel) have . . . more children in her home, that, by definition, is hypocrisy, and you are contributing to the brokenness of the child welfare system,” Miller said.

Jared Holcolm, executive director of Youth Horizons, a nonprofit company that operates four youth residential center II facilities in Valley Center, said neighbors have nothing to worry about. In his 11 years in Valley Center, just north of Wichita, the boys at Youth Horizons haven’t committed any crimes against their neighbors, he said.

“They learn healthy and productive skills and what’s interesting is I have had many residents from this area, from Haysville. These kids are already in your neighborhood. They already live there. And they have had to come clear out to Valley Center because there is nowhere in (Haysville) for them to stay or to live.”

Approval granted, protested

The Metropolitan Area Planning Commission’s approval typically would be the final zoning decision.

But Haysville’s planning commission unanimously recommended denying Henschel’s request and neighbors gathered enough signatures for a protest petition. That means the Segwick County Commission must consider the permit.

Planning commissioners acknowledged that Henschel still has a lot of work to complete on her home, but said they wanted to give her a chance to prove she could fix the place up.

“She’s got a lot of things to get done before this ever happens,” said Bill Johnson, a planning commissioner. “If she doesn’t get one thing done, nothing’s going to change. So I would give her the opportunity to show herself and hopefully it works out. But if she can’t get it done, it won’t happen.”

Cindy Miles, chair of the planning commission, said she supported the permit because children in state custody need a place to go.

“I know that if we don’t find places for them, they are growing up in offices, they are being sent from home to home to home. And we’re raising what could potentially be our future criminals that are adding to our prison system, so I think that we as a community have to address this issue,” Miles said.

Chance Swaim won the Betty Gage Holland Award in 2018 for distinguished service to honor and protect the integrity of public dialogue on America’s college campuses. He has been a news reporter for The Wichita Eagle since 2018. You can contact him at 316-269-6752 and cswaim@wichitaeagle.com.