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Archive for Thursday, March 4, 1999

BIPARTISAN CONCERN KEEPS FOSTER CARE IN LIMELIGHT

March 4, 1999

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— Lawmakers haven't enacted any repairs to the privatized foster care system yet, but the wheels are turning.

Soon after the Legislature's start, Republicans held a press conference to propose fixes for the state's privatized foster care system, which they described as "in crisis."

Democrats, likewise decried the woes, and called for new tax incentives to reward and recruit foster parents.

But with the 90-day Legislature at half-way point it is still hard to assess how many, if any, of the various system repairs will be enacted.

"I don't know that I have a whole lot to report yet," said Sen. Steve Morris, R-Hugoton, chairman of the panel that in summer and fall studied foster care problems, ranging from lack of trained social workers to too many children in the system.

Several measures dealing with foster care have been approved by at least one chamber. But nothing has cleared both.

  • The Senate approved a $1 million emergency supplement to this year's budget for a new guardianship program that Morris said could mean stable homes for hundreds of foster children, if enough lawmakers agree to the spending. And Morris, who holds a key post on Senate Ways and Means, said he will push to double that spending for the permanent guardianship program in the coming fiscal year.

Morris said legislators did not have final numbers on how many families might use the program that pays an average $400 per month to those, often relatives, who provide long-term care as alternate to adoption.

"We're estimating it could be as little as $2 million or as much as $2.8 million," he said. "We're talking about slightly more than 600 kids we hope to get out of the system" through the program.

The $1 million for this year, added by the Senate, is in conference committee, and its fate still was undecided Tuesday.

  • Senate and House bills making schools speed transfer of records so foster children can be enrolled promptly after relocation haven't yet left their chambers of origin.
  • The Senate extended beyond scheduled July 1 lapse date flexibility for judges in deciding if children before them will be handled as foster children or juvenile offenders.
  • Democrats' plan for foster parent tax incentives hasn't moved fast, but isn't dead.

Last week several senators met with judges to discuss ways to streamline the juvenile courts.

"All reports I got were very positive," said Sen. Majority Leader Tim Emert, R-Independence. "The judges are focusing on expediting the process. We found the system was clogged. And it's not just the courts' fault."

Emert commended Republicans and Democrats for working together on the issue.

"I'm impressed," he said. "I think there's consensus we tried too much, too fast and we (the Legislature) are responsible for that. People aren't trying to scuttle this. They're trying to make it work. (Legislators) are talking everything from more funding to things such as these conversations developed with the judicial branch."

-- Mike Shields' phone message number is 832-7144. His e-mail address is mshields@ljworld.com.

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