Salina For several months now, state officials have said their data prove the state's privatized child welfare system is much better than the state-run system it replaced four years ago.
But those in the trenches aren't so sure.
About 140 judges, foster children, social workers, foster parents and public school officials attended an unusual gathering Friday called by children's advocates to measure the system's successes and shortcomings.
Administrators and lawyers cited the good things about the change. But the children and those who work directly with them found much to criticize.
"From a child's standpoint, the new system is worse," said Erin Engelken, a juvenile court worker in Emporia.
"I have a girl who's been in foster (care) six years," Engelken said. "In the two years before privatization she had the same caseworker the whole time. They got along great.
"Since privatization, she's had 12 caseworkers in four years. She doesn't want to have anything to do with them. That's not an improvement."
Engelken's critique followed a series of group discussions Friday during an all-day conference sponsored by the advocacy group Kansas Action for Children.
Others were quick to chime in:
"We have a (foster) child who's been in the Salina school system since Aug. 22, and to this day nobody's gotten any records," said Janet Callaman, who monitors children's services for United Way of Salina.
"So nobody really knows what this child's needs are," she said. "This goes on all the time, and these kids wind up wandering through the system like lost sheep."
"Under privatization, services are aimed at helping the child. The parents are left to fend for themselves," said Steve Halley, a counselor in private practice in Girard.
"But as we all know, that family is not going to be reunited unless the parents get the help they need, so, basically, the system is set up to sabotage that success."
A group of children now in foster care complained they get to be with their biological parents for only an hour a week.
"That's not enough time with my mom and dad," said Amber, 13. She said she hasn't seen her five brothers in the two years she's been in foster care.
"They're too far away," she said.
Other complaints included not getting to spend the night or time after school with friends unless the friends' parents are licensed foster parents; not getting to go on field trips without permission from the juvenile court; foster parents left out of the decision-making process; limited access to doctors, dentists and optometrists; and social workers and foster parents making unkept promises.
Adding it up
The criticism most of it harsh surprised Sen. Steve Morris, R-Hugoton, whose duties on the Senate Ways and Means Committee include overseeing the foster care budget.
"I'm really glad I was able to hear this," he said. "I wish more of my colleagues were here."
Morris was the only legislator in attendance.
The state's top welfare officials did not attend.
Wayne Sims, president and CEO of Kaw Valley Center, the foster-care contractor for much of northeast Kansas, including Douglas County, was there.
"No one feels the system is perfect and that's what you heard today," he said.
Since the onset of privatization, Sims said, the average child exits foster care in 13 months. The national average, he said, is about 33 months.
And before privatization, he said, there was nothing unusual about a child moving in and out of "20 or 30 foster homes." Now, he said, the average is down to three moves.
"These are major improvements," Sims said. "No one believes we're where we need to be, but we're headed in the right direction. And that puts us way ahead of most states."
Told later of the complaints, Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services Secretary Janet Schalansky said conference participants weren't seeing the big picture.
"From a macro perspective, the evidence shows that things are indeed better," Schalansky said. "But when you get down to the micro level, you going to find folks who don't think things are going well. That's a process that we're trying every day to change.
"But I have to say that a lot of these concerns aren't that much different from the calls we used to get every day under the old system," she said. "It's unfortunate, but when you get down to that child-by-child level of looking at things, you're always going to have disagreements on how things could be better.
"I'm not saying to ignore them, but to add them all up and say 'the system is bad' isn't right, either."
SRS officials develop their "macro" view of the system using monthly reports submitted by service providers under contract to the state.
Plans call for Kansas Action for Children compiling a list of recommendations and submitting them to next year's Legislature.