Kansas kids need more from their foster-care system

Phyllis Gilmore, secretary of the Kansas Department for Children and Families.
Phyllis Gilmore, secretary of the Kansas Department for Children and Families. AP

The state’s foster-care system is competing for Kansans’ attention with a beleaguered prison system and an ongoing school-funding dilemma.

It’s a competition in which the Kansas Department for Children and Families would rather not participate.

All we’d like the agency to do is take care of our most neglected children – and that’s not happening like it should under secretary Phyllis Gilmore’s leadership.

Many troubling occurrences the past few months have called into question the performance of DCF, which is charged with the welfare of Kansas children.

The most recent was last week’s child welfare task force meeting, where Gilmore and her office appeared unaware that three sisters in a Tonganoxie foster home had been missing since Aug. 26. After 51 days, the girls (15, 14 and 12) were found in the Kansas City area Monday with a former neighbor who has been detained as a “person of interest.”

Gilmore, the department’s leader for 5 1/2 years, noted during the hearing that more than 70 Kansas foster kids are listed as missing. It’s not outside national averages for missing foster kids, but it remains a troubling number – about 1 percent of foster kids in Kansas aren’t where they’re supposed to be.

Another disturbing incident occurred in August, when a 22-month-old boy drowned in a decorative fish pond in the back yard of a foster home near Fort Scott. State regulations for foster care include protecting children from standing water more than 24 inches deep that’s within 50 yards of the house. The boy’s biological mother said the pond was 2 to 2 1/2 feet deep and 15 to 20 feet from the home’s back door.

DCF is investigating the boy’s death, but it seems clear the department’s regulations weren’t being followed with the pond. As of last week, the dead boy’s two siblings continued in foster care at the same home.

Last month, the child welfare task force learned foster children spent more than 100 nights over the past year sleeping in offices of the state’s two private foster contractors because there weren’t places in homes for them.

Also being looked at is DCF’s handling of the child-abuse case involving Evan Brewer, the 3-year-old grandson of gubernatorial candidate Carl Brewer found dead at a south Wichita home in early September.

While some Democrats have previously called for Gilmore to resign, a Republican made a similar plea last week. Gubernatorial candidate Mark Hutton, a former state lawmaker from Wichita, said last week that Gilmore’s tenure included “a near endless stream of failures affecting foster children, at-risk youth, and children facing abuse in their home environments.”

DCF’s performance has been so shaky under Gilmore, lawmakers saw a need this year to create the task force overseeing the agency. Her answers to the task force have kept her on the hot seat.

She says children run away from foster care and back to their biological families – the same families deemed to be unsafe for the children. That shouldn’t be an excuse. DCF should either be more aggressive in preventing children from returning to biological families or take an internal look at its procedures for removing children in the first place. The middle ground isn’t best here.

Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer hasn’t commented on Gilmore and DCF, but one of his first moves as governor when Gov. Sam Brownback leaves for Washington should be a thorough look at the foster-care system. DCF is losing confidence of the people who oversee the agency – and presumably the Kansans they serve.