Kansas can't afford to sit back and wait for its privatized foster care system to get better.
How much is the welfare of a child worth?
Most people would have a hard time setting such a figure, but the official answer in the state of Kansas apparently is between $13,000 and $15,000 a year.
That's how much the state pays three independent contractors that have agreed to care for children who are wards of the state. These are children who have for some reason been removed from their homes. Their lives have precious little stability to start out with. Once they enter the foster care system, there seems to be almost no stability at all.
A story in last Sunday's Journal-World outlined some of the many complaints that judges, social workers, foster parents and other children's advocates have with the new privatized foster care system in Kansas. Responsibility for foster children was transferred a year ago from the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services to three independent contractors around the state.
The idea behind the new system was to make the care of foster children more economically efficient and to speed the placement of foster children in permanent adoptive homes. The switch, however, seems too often to have resulted in children being moved more frequently and further away from their original homes than they were before.
Specific problems were cited with Kaw Valley Center, which holds the foster care contract for 33 counties in eastern Kansas, including Douglas County, but problems seem to exist across the state. In some pockets, foster care services may have improved, but in many other parts of the state, it seems children aren't being as well served as they were before -- and that's something that should concern all of us.
A study of cases in Douglas County conducted by a group at the Kansas University School of Social Welfare determined that children are being moved, on average, twice as much as their counterparts in the old SRS system and that Douglas County children are spending less time in Douglas County during those placements.
A group of Kansas legislators asked the Legislative Post Audit Committee to do a complete review of the state's foster care system. Instead, the committee asked SRS and Kaw Valley to report back on two issues: the timely completion of required written case plans for children in their care and how well Kaw Valley has done at placing children close to their parents.
The SRS response showed that 82 percent of the initial case plans were filed within the required 20 days. What about the other 18 percent of the children?
On the issue of placing children close to their parents when reintegration with the family is the goal, SRS reported that 70 percent of children referred in the year ending in January were ``placed within the contract regional boundaries.'' That sounds great, but what does it mean? For Kaw Valley that means children from Lawrence could have been placed anywhere in an eight-county area and still meet that goal. The other Kaw Valley region includes 25 counties. A child from Paola could be placed in El Dorado and meet that standard. Do such placements meet the foster care contract's goal that children maintain family, community and cultural ties? A total of 72 percent of children in the Kaw Valley area were placed in their home counties or in contiguous counties, but what about the other 28 percent?
Questions also have been raised about these figures. They may be accurate statistics, but are they a valid measure of the care children are receiving?
According to various reports, children are being lost in the system and shifted from home to home too often. Many foster care families and homes are being driven from the system by the new requirements of privatized care. Professionals are frustrated by what they see as a decline in basic care for foster children.
It's true that the system has only been operating for a year; hopefully things will get better, but the state can't just sit back and wait. An independent study by the Legislative Post Audit Committee would be a good start to evaluating where the problems with this system lie and whether they can be solved.
These are children in need. The state can't ignore the shortcomings in the current foster care system.