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Archive for Thursday, September 23, 1999

EXITING SRS SECRETARY DEFENDS PRIVATIZATION

September 23, 1999

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— Exiting welfare secretary Rochelle Chronister tells a legislative committee that parents often lie about why their children are in foster care and how they're treated.

State welfare secretary Rochelle Chronister used her final appearance before a legislative committee Wednesday to defend her decision to privatize most of the state's services for troubled children, explain dramatic increases in the costs of those services and lash out at some of her harshest critics.

"People lie," Chronister said, referring to parents whose children are in foster care and who have publicly called attention to shortcomings in the privatized foster care system.

"And some of them are very good liars."

Chronister, who is leaving office Oct. 1, assured members of the interim Legislative Budget Committee that parents and family members often share "less than half the information" affecting the decisions made in their cases.

"Nobody wants to lose their children," Chronister said.

In the past, parents have accused foster care workers of being rude, uncaring, untruthful and abusive. But the workers aren't allowed to respond, Chronister said, because confidentiality laws prohibit public comment on specific cases.

"It is very important that you take it upon yourself to sort these things out," Chronister told committee members.

Parents of children in foster care did not attend the meeting.

Chronister, a former chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee, both defended and apologized for privatization costing more than Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services analysts predicted.

"I've never said this would save money in the short run, but, frankly, I didn't know it would cost you so much a long the way," Chronister said.

In Fiscal 1998, the first full year under the privatization, SRS paid it's contractors $68.3 million. A year later, the contracts cost SRS $100.5 million.

SRS expects to spend $86 million on the contracts in Fiscal 2000, which began July 1, 1999.

Chronister attributed the increases to compensating the contractors -- Kaw Valley Center, Kansas Children's Service League and United Methodist Youthville -- for their startup costs, and to unprecedented numbers of children entering the foster care system.

In Fiscal 1997, Kansas averaged 4,112 children in out-of-home placements each month. In Fiscal 1999, which ended June 30, the monthly average had risen to 4,671.

More children are in foster care, Chronister said, because SRS social workers now have more time to investigate reports of abuse and neglect.

But at the same time, she said, record numbers of children are leaving foster care, either to return home or be put up for adoption.

In July and August -- the latest data available -- 317 more children left foster care than entered it.

Rep. David Adkins, R-Leawood, chairman of the House budget committee, asked Chronister if SRS would be able to cut spending on children's services to offset projected shortfalls in revenue.

"I don't anticipate that at this time," Chronister said.

Atkins then asked if money could be saved by somehow curbing the number of children entering foster care system.

Chronister: "No, Mr. Chairman, I think the safety of children is paramount."

Afterward, Adkins said he was only baiting Chronister. "The state's obligation to abused children is absolutely essential," he said. "I'll raise taxes before I cut foster care."

SRS' Fiscal 2000 budget includes $145 million in state and federal funds for foster care, adoption and family preservation services. The governor's Division of Budget has asked SRS to draft proposals for limiting spending to $52.5 million in Fiscal 2001.

Sen. Dick Bond, R-Overland Park, called Chronister's tenure "amazing" and praised her for coping with privatization's critics, an "often vengeful media," and "the constant shadow of a former (SRS) secretary."

Former SRS secretary Robert Harder attends most hearings involving children's services. In the past, he and others have bristled at the notion of lawmakers praising privatization, a system that's already costing $20 million to $30 million more than its state-run predecessor.

Harder, seated in the back of the hearing room, declined comment.

Harder was state welfare secretary from August 1969 to July 1987.

Bond has been a member of the Kaw Valley Center governing board since 1982.

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

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