Politics & Government

State audit: DCF fails to ensure safety of children in foster care

A state audit has concluded that the Kansas Department for Children and Families has failed to ensure the safety of kids in the state’s foster care system.

DCF failed to investigate allegations of abuse or neglect called in to the Kansas Protection Report Center in a timely manner, state auditors found in five of 40 cases they reviewed.

“Even though we found only five investigations where follow-up was not timely, that number is still concerning,” the report stated. “That is because the report center is a primary method used to help ensure that child abuse and neglect reports are addressed.”

The report prompted calls for the resignation of DCF Secretary Phyllis Gilmore from Democratic lawmakers.

Gilmore said the agency investigated 94,000 cases during the period auditors assessed and that 98 percent of them were handled promptly.

She said that she does not plan to resign. “I serve at the pleasure of the governor,” Gilmore told reporters Wednesday.

Gov. Sam Brownback said Gilmore has his support.

“The men and women at DCF work hard every day to protect our children through these complex and very personal cases. It is important that we all provide them with our full support,” Brownback said in an e-mailed statement.

“Secretary Gilmore will continue to have my full support as she works to address the legitimate record keeping and contractor accountability concerns cited in the post audit report, and most importantly, to improve the overall foster care system for Kansas children,” he said.

Federal review’s findings

Gilmore repeatedly pointed to a federal review that had found Kansas had one of the safest foster care systems in the nation.

However, Rep. Ed Trimmer, D-Winfield, noted that the federal review process allows state agencies to choose which 65 cases to submit for review. He questioned how that would produce a more objective analysis than the state auditors, who chose cases at random.

Reps. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, and Jarrod Ousley, D-Overland Park, put out joint statements calling for Gilmore’s resignation upon the audit’s release.

Ward, who had pushed for the audit of DCF, said Gilmore’s agency was told to fix many of the issues laid out in the audit in 2013 as part of an earlier review of the foster care system.

“I’m not comfortable gambling the future of our children in unsafe home environments,” Ward said in the statement. “Now is the time to step up and get serious about improving a broken system that is failing Kansas kids. The first step toward that is getting new leadership at DCF.”

State audit’s other findings

The audit was prepared at the request of the Legislative Post Audit Committee. It is the first part of a comprehensive review into the state’s foster care system, which relies on private foster care agencies to perform most of the work.

Additional reports to be released in January and September will focus more directly on the private contractors.

DCF serves as the oversight agency for the foster care system.

Among other findings:

▪ DCF failed to conduct thorough background checks on foster families. Although finger print-based background checks were conducted for foster parents, they were not conducted for all individuals living in foster homes.

Foster families who had criminal background checks as part of their initial review did not continue to have their histories checked in subsequent years.

Auditors found that 95 of 97 people living in 20 foster homes selected at random were not checked for criminal behavior in the Kansas Bureau of Investigation’s database or for abuse and neglect in DCF’s own database as part of the annual foster care renewal process.

▪ Some foster homes have “inadequate sleeping space for some children in foster care.”

Foster homes are supposed to be limited to six children under the age of 16 – including a foster parent’s biological children – and each foster child is supposed to be given a bedroom of at least 70 square feet.

However, the audit found that these restrictions were waived in 98 percent of 1,100 requests over 15 months.

DCF officials said that is usually so that the agency can keep siblings together.

▪ DCF does not verify the income information provided by foster families to ensure that they have sufficient financial resources to serve as foster homes.

▪ Monthly in-person visits to foster homes by case managers did not always take place.

Auditors reviewed 194 cases from February 2015 through May 2016 and found that in at least 13 cases monthly visits had not taken place for at least one month in that period.

In addition, auditors found that in 114 cases, more than half of those reviewed, the documentation of the monthly visits was so poor that auditors could not tell whether visits took place or questioned the thoroughness of those visits.

A survey of case managers and attorneys who work in the foster care system blamed this on the high volume of cases.

“Caseworkers have far too many cases. They cannot possibly have the time they need,” one attorney who serves as a guardian ad litem told auditors.

Concerns about morale

The survey also raised concerns about the morale of foster care workers, which is contributing to staff turnover, with only 24 percent of foster care staffers saying that they think morale is high.

Gilmore blamed that on the media. She said negative stories about the foster care system have hurt morale. She said there is a persistent myth that children in the foster care system are maltreated and that the audit would help fuel that notion.

She said DCF was already working to address many of the issues identified by auditors before the audit, and that she hopes to have many of the issues resolved by January.

She said the agency would create a new compliance unit to help ensure the safety of children in the foster care system.

“We were far down the road before the audit was ever thought about,” she said.

Related stories from Wichita Eagle