Seventy percent of the men and women in America’s prisons and jails were in foster care. Regardless of what some Kansas media tell you, and what lawyers claim in pending lawsuits, Kansas’ foster care woes aren’t unique. They are endemic in the foster care system nationwide. Indeed, by almost all measurements, the Kansas foster case system is average. Average case lengths, average case outcomes, and, sadly, average success rates for kids who grow up and end up in prison. Can we agree that average sucks? Because of this reality, no matter who is in charge of Kansas DCF, it will take years not months to fix the system, if fixing it is even possible.
As one of four judges in the highest-volume Child In Need of Care court in Kansas, I see the fallout of bad parenting daily. I also see how overworked the caseworkers are and the impact of poorly managed case plans on the kids. It’s tragic even if average. It’s also unacceptable. But here’s the truth: foster kids don’t have to know how messed up the system is while we implement positive changes to eventually fix it. Above-average states have embraced community-based efforts to ensure that kids are cared for as they wait for parents to beat drug addiction issues and other behavioral problems that make it impossible for them to parent. These efforts include more local foster homes, enough Court Appointed Special Advocate volunteers for every child, and mentoring programs with successful citizens helping guide children down paths of success now and into adulthood.
Sedgwick County has organizations in place to meet these needs. Sadly, they don’t have adequate community support to help all foster kids. This is your fault. It’s my fault. It’s everyone’s fault. And here’s the full impact of this deficit of love and caring in our community. When I see cases with active, loving foster parents and similarly involved CASA volunteers, kids succeed and aren’t just “average” statistics. Indeed, kids who don’t have CASAs graduate high school just 50 percent of the time; kids with CASAs have an 80 percent-plus graduation rate. When good people don’t foster or advocate for kids, the kids become victims of average outcomes instead of benefiting from far-above-average results.
We lack enough local foster homes for these kids. The impact of this is cataclysmic. The average number of foster placements for Kansas foster kids in the system for 24 months is just over 5. Each time they are moved to a new home, they are figuratively told the previous family doesn’t want them. They are abandoned by their own families at least once, then four more times while in foster care. When we lack enough local placements, they’re often placed two or more hours away from their home counties. When this happens, add the trauma of sitting in the back of a car four or more hours a day, at least once per week, to see parents for just an hour at a time. If something happens to prevent the parent from seeing his or her child, that’s disappointment to go with the stress of sitting in a car for hours at a time.
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We have several private foster care providers in Sedgwick County. The ones I most often deal with are EmberHope, Salvation Army, DCCCA, KVC and Saint Francis Ministries. They are desperate for more foster parents. No one who passes a background check will be turned away. In my ideal CINC world, so many citizens would be volunteering that there would be a waiting list. We are far from this level of community support, and that’s a shame.
If you don’t have a home conducive to fostering, or the time to give 24/7, there are other impactful options you can pursue. I already mentioned the impact of CASA volunteers (CASA of Sedgwick County is our local CASA provider). I love my CASAs. They keep an eye on the cases and help me to hold caseworkers, parents and fosters accountable. Those ideal states I mentioned have so much community support that every kid gets a CASA and businesses and individuals financially fund the programs. Last year we could only appoint CASAs on 145 of almost 600 new CINC cases. We also average about 1,400 out of home placements per month, so we are actually short about 1,000 CASAs. That’s appalling. I know we can do better. CASAs put in from 5 to 10 hours a month and they only advocate for one kid or family of kids, yet they dramatically reduce recidivism and runaway rates, and increase graduation rates to above USD 259’s overall graduation rate. That’s awesome.
Last year we added Youthrive to our foster care toolbox. When kids can’t reintegrate with families or be adopted to new families, the case plan changes to independent living. These kids will be adults and have to fend for themselves some day, even if they come from families that never did so successfully. Youthrive assigns mentors to help these transitioning kids tap into resources and obtain things they need to be productive adults, such as driver’s licenses, education and job opportunities. As with CASA, we don’t a have a tenth of the mentors we need to help all these kids. Sad.
There are also local organizations such as Big Brothers/Big Sisters and Youth Horizons that offer mentoring services for all kids and not just those stuck in the foster care system.
We cannot fix the foster care system overnight, but we can dramatically improve outcomes for the kids immediately by doing more than gripe and complain about the system. We can step up and make a difference now by fostering kids, advocating for them as CASAs, and mentoring them as Youthrive, Youth Horizons and Big Brother/Big Sister mentors. I’ve been presenting the foster care problem and volunteer opportunities to churches and civics organizations for the past couple years. Every time I’m humbled by the response — dozens of people have stepped forward to get involved. I would love to present to your church or group. Please contact me so we can set something up soon. These kids are in crisis. Every moment we wait for the government to fix this mess means more kids will be lost to the average statistics.
Call my administrative assistant, Kelsie Voss, at 316-660-5612 to set up a presentation. I will skip church, get up early for breakfast meetings, and present late into the evening if it means helping these kids, but I can’t do anything without your help.
Kevin Smith is a Sedgwick County District Court judge presiding over child in need of care cases and juvenile offender cases