Bill proposes end to state's privatized foster care

TOPEKA — Legislation to end Kansas' privatized foster care system is the latest volley from lawmakers who say the state lacks oversight over the contractors managing such child welfare services.

Dozens of parents who lost custody of their children have complained to lawmakers in recent weeks that the state and its contractor caseworkers remove children without giving sufficient reason or the chance to appeal.

The legislation would stop the state from signing new deals with the foster care contractors. The Johnson County lawmaker behind the new legislation said it's meant to force contractors to answer questions if they want to keep the state's business.

"We're certainly going to get their attention," said Rep. Mike Kiegerl, R-Olathe.

"There's a lack of oversight, a lack of transparency. Nobody ought to have the kind of power these caseworkers have."

The contractors and Kansas' Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services say they're happy to address lawmakers' concerns. They note that local police and judges also play a key role in deciding when a child should be removed.

SRS officials promised to investigate the specific complaints raised by parents. But they stand by the state's privatized system, which was the first of its kind in the United States when it began in 1996.

"We feel like we have made a lot of accomplishments since privatization," said SRS spokeswoman Michelle Ponce.

Kyle Kessler, a spokesman for contractor KVC Behavioral HealthCare, said his company will "provide any information that is requested."

News of Kiegerl's bill pleased Kathy Winters, an Olathe woman who lost custody of two grandchildren in 2008. She contends the state and its contractors have been slow to respond to her concerns.

"We've hit brick walls so many times," Winters said. "Now we're getting somewhere."