Size of Kansas foster care population up 18 percent

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP/KSNT) — The size of Kansas’ foster care population has swelled 18 percent over the past six years, and child welfare advocates blame high turnover among caseworkers, parental drug addiction and cuts to programs that help poor families.

“I really think something needs to be done,” said Diana Frederick, executive director of Douglas County CASA, the agency that provides volunteer Court Appointed Special Advocates to work with abused and neglected children in state custody. “Things are enough of a concern that we need to acknowledge that there is a problem and we need to work together to find a solution.”

Children are usually removed from their homes because of neglect, and leave the foster care system when they rejoin their families, are adopted or reach age 18. State data shows that the 2009 fiscal year is the last time more children were exiting the system each month, 312 on average, than were entering, 260 on average. Since then, the numbers have gradually flipped, with 317 children entering the system on average each month in FY 2015, which ended June 30, and 286 leaving the system.

Over the six-year span, the foster care monthly average jumped to 6,257 children in fiscal year 2015 from 5,317 in 2009, state figures show.

And a new foster mom in Topeka is already seeing the effects of more children needing placement.

“I get calls from KVC admissions – which means they have children looking for placement at least half a dozen times a day,” Shannon Kennedy said Saturday.

Kennedy, who became licensed to foster children at the beginning of August this year, is now taking care of a 5-year-old boy. The two were paired together on August 31st.

For right now, Kennedy said she can only have one child even though she is licensed for two. But the repeated calls have made her consider renovating her second floor to accommodate more children.

During her short time as a foster parent, she has seen a lot of teenagers that need placement. One demographic that will continue to rise as the number of children in need gets higher.

“It’s going against the desired trend,” said Christine James-Brown, president and CEO of the Child Welfare League of America, about the increase in foster care cases in Kansas.

“In general there has been a lot of focus across the country in communities on reducing the size of the child welfare system.” James-Brown. “There is a real rallying call to make that happen.”

Theresa Freed, a spokesman for the Department of Children and Families, said there has been a change of focus in the agency, with more of an emphasis placed on helping families reintegrate. She said the result is workers are spending more time with children.

“Our agency isn’t focused on the number of kids in foster care,” Freed said. “We are focused on the individual child and his or her need and the best situation for that child.”

Freed, however, acknowledged that child welfare agencies and organizations across the state see a shortage of social workers as fewer people enter the profession. From last November through this month, the turnover rate has been 16.8 percent among DCF staff, Freed said. The number doesn’t count turnover among contracted staff.

“Our goal is for children to have a single case manager throughout the life of their case,” Freed said. The agency is working on measures to retain current staff, such as offering incentives, and looking to broaden hiring options. In some cases, agencies are using unlicensed employees, known as “family support workers,” to do much of the work that licensed social workers previously handled.

Frederick, of Douglas County’s CASA, said the problem is so bad that her office has seen a child with five case managers in eight months.

“The case managers are overburdened and underpaid,” Frederick said. “And sometimes because they are thrown in the fire so quickly they don’t get the ideal training.”

Kennedy said she has great support from KVC Health Systems, the agency through which she started fostering children. On their website, KVC describes itself as “a private, nonprofit 501(c)3 organization and a national leader in child welfare and behavioral healthcare.”

For Kennedy, the support she has gotten through KVC and the Department of Children and Families has been invaluable. But the support she gets from family and friends is the reason some of the hard first days of adjusting to being a new foster parent have been easier.

Another way she finds support is through online chat forums with other foster and adoptive parents. Adoption through fostering is something Kennedy is interested in perusing and says KVC has helped make that a future possibility.

Programs for struggling families also have suffered, child welfare advocates say. Kansas Action for Children President and CEO Shannon Cotsoradis said early childhood grants awarded to 20 programs across the state will be reduced by 6.5 percent, or about $810,000, to make up for state budget shortfalls. The grants were funded through tobacco settlement money.

“I think as we’ve eroded those safety net programs, including the most recent reductions to the early childhood block grants, that we are making it more difficult for families that already are enduring high levels of stress to negotiate just the day-to-day challenges,” Cotsoradis said. “And then on top of that when you are having challenges with your children, it can put some families over the top.”

Kristin Hines, executive director of the CASA office that serves a six-county area in southwest Kansas, said addiction, particularly to prescription drugs, also is a huge problem among the families of foster children. Treatment options are scarce in rural areas, she said. Also challenging is a shortage of foster care families, she said, noting some instances of children placed in communities far away from their parents or other siblings in state custody. The long drives to see the children make it challenging for parents and workers assigned to their cases, she said.

“It’s definitely a concern,” Hines said of the growing numbers. “It’s not good for kids to be in foster care.”

KSNT News reporter Caroline Sweeney contributed to this report.

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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