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Archive for Sunday, November 9, 1997

DOUGLAS COUNTY STRUGGLES WITH NEW FOSTER CARE SYSTEM

November 9, 1997

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State officials say privatization of foster care in Kansas is a success, but some Douglas County advocates of foster children don't agree.

The private contractor hired by the state to manage foster care in Douglas County is being criticized locally for failure to properly supervise children.

Douglas County District Judge Jean Shepherd, who has handled juvenile and family cases for 13 years, said transfer of foster care from the state Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services to the nonprofit Kaw Valley Center Inc. of Kansas City, Kan., resulted in bankruptcy of a workable system in this county.

She said foster care programs in Douglas County were among the best in the state prior to privatization.

"The old system has been completely dismantled and the safety net which formerly existed for children is no longer present," Shepherd said.

Under the new system, SRS retains formal custody of each abused or neglected child in foster care. But SRS now contracts with Kaw Valley and two other licensed agencies to handle day-to-day services in the state.

Kaw Valley's jurisdiction includes Lawrence, Kansas City, Olathe, Emporia and Chanute.

More than 200 children from Douglas County are in foster care, while about 4,000 statewide are in foster homes. SRS budgeted $61 million this fiscal year -- July 1997 through June 1998 -- for privatized foster care.

Different spin

No other state has so broadly moved to shift foster care, adoption and family preservation programs from the government to the private sector.

The transition for child welfare programs began 18 months ago, but foster care was the last to go in March.

Gov. Bill Graves, an adoptive parent, has been spreading the privatization gospel nationwide.

He made a big speech in June at the National Conference on Foster Care and Adoption in Washington, D.C. He repeated his message of optimism in Ohio last month at the National Governors Assn. meeting.

Graves again endorsed privatization at a conference Friday in Overland Park attended by representatives of more than 30 states and co-sponsored by SRS, the agency that hired Kaw Valley and two other foster care contractors.

"I am truly pleased with the way the system is performing, truly pleased with the direction our state has taken in terms of caring for children," Graves said. "We believe our initiatives in Kansas are bringing significant improvement in children's lives."

Teresa Markowitz, commissioner of children and family services at SRS, said privatization was like a child experiencing growing pains. There are setbacks, but the long-term outlook is bright.

"I feel very good about successes of privatization," she said. "We are going down the right road."

Judge's opinion

Judge Shepherd believes the Kaw Valley staff wants to do a good job but so far hasn't adequately served children and families involved with foster care in Douglas County.

She identified her primary concerns:

  • Privatization was instituted by SRS too quickly, resulting in chaos for people working with Kaw Valley.
  • A shortage of social workers forced Kaw Valley to hire employees with no training in the field of child welfare. High staff turnover at Kaw Valley continues to cause delays in services to children.
  • The goal of one welfare worker per foster child hasn't been met. Many children in the care of Kaw Valley have had at least three case workers since March. In one instance, a child had six different case managers in six months.
  • The number of foster homes in Douglas County dropped from 60 in March to 22 in October. A shortage of homes means many Douglas County children are placed in adjacent counties, causing transportation, family visit and therapy problems.

Shepherd said moving kids long distances didn't "meet the stated contract goal of maintaining family, county or cultural ties."

  • Kaw Valley statistics about movement of children are unreliable. In Douglas County,123 foster children were moved from place to place a total of 423 times. But not all those moves were counted by Kaw Valley when assessing compliance with state mandates.

Shepherd said: "For these children, every move is a move. Moves create some serious long-term consequences for kids. They stop connecting with people because there's no point to it."

  • It is unlikely all Douglas County children in need of court protection are being brought into the privatized system because experienced SRS staff believe Kaw Valley is unable to cope with existing case loads.

Foster parents speak

Interviews with foster parents working with children from Douglas County revealed discontent with Kaw Valley operations.

Lawrence foster parent Camille Dalager, who has been licensed since 1992, said Kaw Valley's biggest problem was lack of communication. Flow of information among Kaw Valley staff and with foster families has been inadequate, she said.

Lines of communication with SRS weren't perfect, Dalager said, but when problems occurred they could typically be worked out.

She said foster parents with urgent questions for Kaw Valley had to call long distance to Kansas City, Kan. More often than not, the caller would reach an answering machine.

When Kaw Valley set up an 800 number, Kaw Valley staff in the Lawrence office didn't know the number existed.

"The impression from the very beginning was ... they didn't know what they were doing," Dalager said.

A controversial issue was Kaw Valley's decision to end an SRS policy of paying a supplemental clothing allowance for each foster child.

Kaw Valley told foster parents to make use of old clothing or buy new clothes with a portion of the base per diem amount allocated per child.

"Excuse me," Dalager said. "I'm buying new clothes for my children and I'm supposed to look at a foster child and say, 'You can't have a new coat.' You're talking about kids whose self esteem is on the floor anyway."

Negative reaction led Kaw Valley to reinstate the old SRS clothing allowance.

Nancy Montgomery of Lawrence cared for two siblings in foster care for six months in conjunction with Kaw Valley.

The children had a string of inexperienced Kaw Valley case workers. The first two quit after short stints, she said.

She said Kaw Valley staff told her special court-ordered counseling for the children was actually a "financial consideration" best left to experts at Kaw Valley. She didn't believe the children got the help they needed.

Montgomery said staff working at Kaw Valley also accused her of coaching the children to make allegations of abuse.

"Kaw Valley was unable to respond to the children's needs and court orders in a timely manner," Montgomery said. "If we err, let's err in favor of the children -- not against them."

She is attempting to reorganize a foster parent advocacy group that existed in Douglas County prior to privatization.

Connie Robertson, an Ottawa foster parent, took in two children in October. She asked Kaw Valley about obtaining clothes and day care for both kids and therapy for the oldest.

She said a Kaw Valley staffer in Lawrence told her to buy clothes and turn in receipts, but reimbursement would have to wait until November. He wasn't certain how to handle day care. He said therapy wasn't going to happen soon because he was too busy to arrange that service, she said.

"I find these answers unacceptable," Robertson said. "These are issues that were always taken care of without any hassle before privatization."

Kaw Valley reaction

Kaw Valley President Wayne Sims and Kaw Valley Vice President Anne Roberts attended a recent meeting of the Legislature's committee on SRS reform. They heard plenty from folks not satisfied with Kaw Valley's work with foster kids.

"When you go to privatization, you're going to have differences of opinion," Sims said.

Roberts said there were plenty of families satisfied with Kaw Valley.

In a subsequent interview, Roberts said disenchantment in Douglas County was the result of several factors. First, she said, local foster families believed they were part of a good system under SRS and didn't want to change.

The unexpected decline in foster families in Douglas County put stress on the local system, she said. Lack of communication with foster parents also was a problem early in the transition, she said.

Roberts said the biggest threat to quality management of foster care in this area was a statewide shortage of social workers.

Kaw Valley expected to hire many SRS social workers once privatization occurred, she said. That didn't happen because SRS moved 200 staff members to other government jobs. Meanwhile, the other two private foster care contractors also had to hire more than 100 staff members each.

"We anticipated they (experienced SRS staff) would become the core of our local offices," Roberts said.

She said one point shouldn't be lost: Many of the complaints leveled against Kaw Valley are the same complaints made against SRS for years.

"We're not going to fix them in eight months with new people," she said. "We are going to work our tails off to make this work."

In defense of Kaw Valley, Markowitz of SRS said the three foster care contractors had a "total sense of commitment for Kansas children."

She expects public opinion about privatization and contractors to improve with time.

"If this program looks the same next year as it does right now, then we will have failed," Markowitz said. "Even with hard work, it's not going to be fixed overnight. It's going to take some time."

The future for kids

Sen. Sandy Praeger, a Lawrence Republican on the Legislature's SRS oversight committee, said privatization was too much change too quickly.

"This is not like buying pens and paper," she said.

Privatization advocates have dug their heels in so deep it might be impossible to convince them a terrible mistake was made, Praeger said.

"I think we're so invested in the process that we're not recognizing the breakdowns," the senator said. "I don't know if we can fix it the way it is. There is a lot of pent-up frustration, especially in Douglas County."

Gary Brunk, executive director of Kansas Action for Children, said the Legislature must add two key elements to make privatization work.

He said the most glaring gap in the new system was lack of focus on preventing child abuse and neglect. Secondly, privatization didn't address the role of communities in shaping and implementing reform.

"Mid-course corrections are unavoidable," he said. "We can be optimistic ... if we are unsparingly honest in our assessment of how well we are measuring up."

Dalager, a Lawrence foster parent, said lack of improvement by Kaw Valley would likely compel more Douglas County families to get out of foster care.

"We work from the view that if we don't do anything else, we do no further damage. They're already damaged kids," she said.

"It's always heartbreaking when children get lost between the cracks. There were always cracks. Now we've got Grand Canyons."

-- Tim Carpenter's phone message number is 832-7155. His e-mail address is tim@ljworld.com.

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