Topeka Auditors fault the state's privatized foster care system, but welfare officials say the report proves improvements are being made.
Welfare officials failed to input most of the names submitted to the state's central registry of confirmed child abusers between July and December 1997, auditors reported Monday.
That lapse in official responsibility made it possible for some abusers with erroneously clean background records to work or volunteer at child care facilities across the state.
Only 38 percent of the child abusers' names submitted during the six-month audit period made it into the registry, according to the 76-page report given by Legislative Division of Post Audit to two legislative committees meeting in joint session in a crowded Statehouse hearing room.
"This situation presents a major risk to the safety of children in foster care," auditors concluded.
State law bars anyone with a record of child abuse or neglect from involvement at any sort of child-care facility. Such facilities are required to submit names of prospective workers or volunteers to the state for a background check.
Social and Rehabilitation Services Secretary Rochelle Chronister told lawmakers the abuse registry hasn't been kept up to date because of computer problems at the state welfare agency. But she promised the problem will be fixed within a few weeks.
"That will be done," Chronister said. "It will be completed by Jan. 1." The SRS registry problems surfaced as part of a four-month review by auditors of how well the state's foster-care system has been working since it was privatized in March 1997.
Auditors said their 4,000-hour study found evidence of ongoing and serious problems. But they also concluded that many improvements have been made in the system since its "chaotic" beginnings 18 months ago. They said it was difficult to tell yet whether the new system is better than the pre-1997 model. Some aspects of the new system seem better than the old, they said, while others seem worse. Auditors reviewed the case files of 146 children in foster care in eight cities between March 1997 and April 1998. They also surveyed front-line social workers, former social workers and other child welfare professionals.
Unlike the auditors, Chronister and spokesmen for private foster-care contractors drew solid, positive conclusions from the report, saying it proved the new system is better than the old and continually improving as times goes on.
Among other negative audit findings:
- The children whose case files were studied were moved on average every two or three months. That instability created disruptions in schooling, therapy and other services.
- Twelve of 60 randomly selected foster care facility employees hadn't had criminal or child abuse background checks.
- 39 percent of Kaw Valley Center social workers surveyed by the auditors said foster-care placements for children more than half the time weren't "safe or nurturing."
- In the past year, there has been a 70 percent increase in the number of violations cited by state health officials at foster care facilities.
- 47 percent of SRS social workers surveyed said they are afraid to openly discuss problems with the new system.
"The agency has told us point blank to be quiet," one social worker told auditors.
But Chronister and other defenders of the new system pointed to these positive audit findings as evidence the system is working:
- The 146 children in the study had received 81 percent of the services recommended for them by child welfare professionals.
- In March 1997, needs assessments for children in state custody and their families were late 76 percent of the time. But assessments were late in only 8 percent of 1998 cases studied.
Chronister told lawmakers the biggest hurdle now facing the system is the shortage of people willing to be foster parents.
-- Mike Shields' phone message number is 832-7144. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.