Federal auditors are expected next week in Kansas to examine the state's historically troubled foster care system.
But they won't be coming to Douglas County. Here, after four years adjusting to the abrupt and massive changes brought by privatization, the system is working better than anyplace else in Kansas, state and local officials say.
But the success did not come easy.
"It was hell," said Shelley Bock, a Lawrence attorney who often represents children in juvenile court. "We're in a good place now, but I feel like we've been on this five-year trek through the wilderness, and now it's over, we're back where we started."
State records show the numbers of children in foster care in Douglas County have been in steady decline for the past year. Better yet, they're staying down.
"Douglas County deserves to be in the spotlight. It's on the cutting edge of the cutting edge," said Joyce Allegrucci, who is in charge of children and family policy at the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services.
Few have enjoyed the system's success more than Leslie Sharp. Her mentally ill son, Jeremiah, 10, was once a prime candidate for foster care.
"He was diagnosed bi-polar when he was eight years old," Sharp said. "But he's also ADHD (attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder), obsessive compulsive disorder and oppositional/defiant disorder."
Last fall, Jeremiah's doctor told Sharp she had a year to get control of the youngster's behavior problems.
"After that, he said we'd probably have to put him in some kind of group home," said Sharp, 29. "The way things were, we couldn't handle him, the schools couldn't handle him. We were doing everything we could, but nothing seemed to work."
Elsewhere in Kansas, Jeremiah likely would be headed for foster care. He was, after all, beyond his parents' control.
But Sharp and her husband, Shane, live in Lawrence, where foster care is not considered an option for a child who's only problem is mental illness.
Earlier this year, Bert Nash Mental Health Center surrounded the Sharps with support and services. There's no more talk about a group home.
"We just needed some help, some support," Sharp said. "We're doing OK now."
For the Sharps, the system worked.
"I wish I could say that's how it is everywhere else," Allegrucci said. "Unfortunately, it isn't.
Four of the past five years, Douglas County officials have battled confusion and controversy brought by the state's 1997 privatization of foster care and other child welfare services.
In Douglas County, officials here argued, privatization fixed a system that wasn't broken. Only now, they say, have conditions come full-circle.
Consider the numbers:
SRS records show a steady increase in the number of children in foster care in five of its 11 area offices: Chanute, Emporia, Hays, Hutchinson and Wichita.
In the Olathe, Manhattan, and Garden City areas the numbers are steady. But in the Kansas City, Topeka and Lawrence areas, they're in steady decline.
According to the latest official count, the Lawrence-area office, which covers Douglas, Franklin, Jefferson, Atchison, Brown and Doniphan counties, had 184 children in foster care on May 31. That's the least of any area office. Statewide there are 3,700 children in foster care.
In the first six months of 2001, 34 Douglas County children were put in foster care, living in either foster homes or with responsible relatives. That's down considerably from the first six months of last year, when 68 children were removed from their homes.
A last resort
"Foster care is very traumatic. It's not our first choice," said Douglas County District Court Judge Jean Shepherd, who presides over the county's foster care cases.
Shepherd is not reluctant to put children in foster care when they are not safe at home.
"There's no question about that," she said. "And in those instances, it's great to have, and our foster parents are wonderful people. But the kids may not understand that, you're still putting them in the homes of strangers."