Archive for Wednesday, September 8, 1999

EDUCATOR URGES REFORM OF FOSTER CARE

September 8, 1999

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Lawrence residents continue to criticize the state's privatized foster-care system.

More times than she cares to remember, Alice Holtz has seen innocent children's lives torn apart by the confusion that comes with being in foster care.

"These kids are on an emotional roller coaster," said Holtz, a teacher in the Lawrence school system for the past 20 years.

"They've been taken out of their homes for reasons they may or may not understand," she said. "They're in a foster home, which they know is probably going to be a temporary setting, and sooner or later they hear they might be put up for adoption."

These children, Holtz said, need someone they can turn to for answers. Too often, she said, that person isn't there.

"I have these kids in my classroom, and there's nothing unusual about them going through four or five different case managers and social workers," she said. "They don't have anybody who knows what's going on with their case."

Holtz was one of almost 40 people -- parents, foster parents, social workers and advocates -- at a public hearing Tuesday at the Lawrence Public Library to discuss the successes and failures of the state's foster-care system.

Kansas privatized its foster-care services in March 1997, awarding a three-year contract to Kaw Valley Center in Kansas City, Kan., for services in much of eastern Kansas, including Douglas County.

Contracts for services in central and western Kansas were awarded to the Kansas Children's Service League and United Methodist Youthville.

Information culled from Tuesday's hearing will be used in crafting the requirements for the 2000-02 contracts.

It's not known how many agencies other than Kaw Valley, KCSL and Youthville are interested in bidding.

Plans call for the Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services to award the new contracts by Jan. 1, 2000.

At Tuesday's meeting, Holtz said she would like to see less turnover among workers having the most day-to-day contact with the children.

Others called for:

  • Dramatic improvements in the way information -- especially information on a child's past medication levels -- is shared with foster parents, teachers and social workers.
  • Better access to services for troubled families coping with children with severe emotional disabilities.
  • A greater emphasis on placing abused or neglected children with stable, caring relatives rather than in foster homes.
  • More services for children who are about to leave foster care because they'll soon turn 18 and have not been adopted or returned to their families.
  • More African-American case managers and social workers, and more minorities on the contractors' governing boards.

Afterward, Maureen Mahoney, general counsel for Kaw Valley, said solutions to the system's problems are often more complicated than they appear.

Kaw Valley, for example, will have difficulty hiring more minority social workers until more graduate from the university and college social work programs in Kansas.

"That's the pool we're able to draw from," Mahoney said, "so until there are more minority students in the pool, the problem is going to be there."

Mahoney said Kaw Valley's director of training is African-American and is "very sensitive to cultural-diversity issues."

Still, no one on the Kaw Valley governing board is African-American or Hispanic, she said.

Mahoney conceded that throughout much of 1997 and 1998, Kaw Valley struggled with high staff turnover. But it's better now, she said.

"The national average for these kinds of positions is a turnover rate between 25 and 27 percent," she said. "In the first quarter of this year, we were at 18 percent."

And much of the turnover is inevitable, Mahoney said.

"This is very stressful work," she said. "There's a burnout factor that's always going to be there."

During the hearing, several participants said they thought families had better access to services when SRS ran the foster-care system.

Jim Wann, director of the SRS office in Lawrence, disagreed.

"The system is better than what it was before, absolutely," he said. "But having said that, it still needs a lot of fine tuning -- and five years from now, it's still going to need some more fine tuning. This is all about change."

Lawmakers privatized most of the state's foster-care services after the SRS system failed several court-ordered reviews of its performance.

-- Dave Ranney's phone message number is 832-7222. His e-mail is dranney@ljworld.com.

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