Eagle editorial: Foster care increase just a coincidence?

Is it merely a coincidence that the numbers of children in foster care in Sedgwick County and Kansas have increased sharply during the time the state has sharply cut welfare eligibility and other support to struggling families? Unlikely – which raises more concerns about the Brownback administration’s priorities.

Over the past two years, near-record numbers of children have entered the state’s foster-care system, the Kansas Health Institute News Service reported. In Sedgwick County, the average number of children in out-of-home placements has increased from 950 in fiscal year 2011 to 1,319 in 2013. Statewide, there were 5,719 children in such placements as of June 30 – only the second time in the past 10 years that the number has exceeded 5,700 on the final day of the state’s fiscal year (the last time was at the start of the Great Recession in 2008).

At the same time, the number of adoptions of children in state custody has fallen to a six-year low. At the end of June, 975 children from the foster-care system were available for adoption – the most in at least the past four years.

Officials at the Kansas Department for Children and Families say the increase of children in foster care is mostly due to the weak economy and parental drug abuse. Those likely are significant factors. However, the numbers have not gone down as the economy has improved, and the percentage of cases attributed to drug or alcohol problems has been steady over the past few years, KHI reported.

Those working on the ground and other child advocates see a link between the higher numbers and recent changes to state policies that have strained parents’ ability to care for their children and access services.

The Brownback administration has reduced by 20 percent the amount of time a person can receive federal welfare benefits, increased work requirements by 50 percent in order to receive child care assistance, and enacted other policies that reduced benefits or limited eligibility, including allowing the state to take away an entire family’s benefits if any child in the household is truant from school.

As a result, the number of families receiving cash assistance dropped from 14,204 on June 30, 2011, to 7,790 this past June. During the same period, the number of working parents receiving child-care assistance dropped from 9,953 to 8,163.

And if a child is placed in foster care, it can be hard for parents to find and pay for the services needed to get that child out of the system. Also, it is now harder to access mental health programs that help stabilize children.

For example, in fiscal year 2010, the state had 17 psychiatric residential treatment facilities, and the average number of children in those facilities per month was 683. Last month, 216 children were in 11 facilities.

DCF recently consolidated its family preservation and foster-care contracts, which it hopes will improve outcomes. It also is looking at how to integrate more prevention services, so families don’t reach the point of crisis and require state intervention.

That could help. But Wendy Flickinger, outreach coordinator of a Hutchinson-based program that helps parents navigate the foster-care system, thinks the rising foster-care numbers also reflect misplaced priorities.

“I think the state of Kansas is trying to balance the budget on backs of the poor, because so many programs and services that lower-income people need to survive are being cut,” she told KHI. “And yet we’re giving the upper-income people tax deductions.”

That’s the wrong road map for Kansas.

For the editorial board, Phillip Brownlee