Opinion Columns & Blogs

Drug abuse taking toll on children

Drug abuse by Kansas parents – particularly meth – continues to take an extreme toll on both our youth and the state agencies which oversee their care and well-being.

The Department for Children and Families is overrun with reports of abuse, neglect and at-risk children to the extent that it cannot hire enough qualified workers to properly investigate, and new DCF Secretary Gina Meier-Hummel has floated filling these positions with lesser-qualified individuals out of pure necessity.

In 2016, Child Protective Services received 34,537 reports of abuse or neglect and was able to substantiate only 7.2 percent of these reports. Nationally, 16.5 percent of reports were substantiated that same year. It is likely that this discrepancy can be attributed to case overload and botched investigations – not frivolous reports.

Of children who are removed from the home in response to reports of abuse, neglect or other issues, 53 percent are due to physical abuse, physical neglect, lack of supervision or abandonment. 15 percent of the time, children are removed not due to specific instances or abuse or neglect, but because parental drug use has placed their health and well-being at risk. In at least one-third of those specific cases, the parents’ drug of choice is meth. Where do these children go when they are removed from the home, and how long do they stay there?

The state has repeatedly set records for the number of children in the foster care system over the past several years. There are currently over 7,000 Kansas children in the system – an increase of around 40 percent since 2012. Sedgwick County leads the state with over 1,000 children in out-of-home placement. The average length of stay in foster care for children reunited with their families is around nine months. For children who are eventually adopted, the average length of stay is around 36 months.

There are over 2,700 licensed foster homes in the state, which is remarkable given the litany of regulations the state has imposed on these providers. Providers must be licensed, undergo a background check, be at least 21 years old, have sufficient financial resources, participate in an initial family assessment, undergo specific training and be sponsored by a public or private child-placing agency.

Everything from nutrition, sleepovers, athletic participation, food handling, hand washing and medication storage to tobacco use, bathroom size (at least 45 square feet), cleanliness, ventilation, outdoor play areas, trampolines (not allowed) and firearm storage are subject to specific regulation. Pools must be maintained at a pH between 7.2 and 8.2, chlorine content between 0.4 and 3.0 parts per million, the pools must be cleaned daily, and the water chemistry must be both checked and recorded daily as well – with log books available for inspection. How on Earth are state officials keeping up on enforcement of all these regulations?

Kansas privatized foster care in 1997, though our courts are tasked with determining when a child will enter and exit the system. Our judges do an exceptional job of hearing evidence and making difficult decisions deemed to be in the child’s best interests, but our court dockets are bursting at the seams with new cases. The Legislature’s steadfast refusal to sufficiently fund the judicial branch has been well-publicized, but our lawmakers still expect judges and court personnel to carefully process every case.

Many of our children are languishing in the adoption process as well. As of August 2017, 458 Kansas children were registered on the Adoption Exchange with no identified adoptive resource. 758 children were successfully adopted in FY 2017 – 47.5 percent by a foster parent, and 49.7 percent by a relative. Many of these children have special needs; up to 35 percent have a “guarded prognosis.” Adoption is an ideal remedy for children whose own parents are incapable of, or unwilling to care for them, but resources are greatly limited.

This a scattershot overview of the situation as it exists today, but the challenges before us are clear. Too many parents are taking drugs and placing their children at great risk. The ability of our state agencies to identify at-risk children and pull them into safety is hampered by both the pure number of reports being made and the lack of qualified and well-trained personnel to investigate them. The courts are overrun with Child in Need of Care cases, our foster care system is heavily-regulated and difficult to monitor, and there are far more children in need of adoption than there are adoptive resources.

Identifying the problem is relatively simple; solving it is considerably more difficult. A next installment will offer some preliminary solutions.

Blake Shuart is a Wichita attorney.