Topeka — As the story of child welfare in Kansas continues to unravel, some advocates for children are questioning whether the state remains a pioneer.
In 1996 Kansas was the first state to turn over its foster care and adoption programs to private, nonprofit groups. A report released last weekday by Kansas Action for Children asks whether that change has made the state accountable to its children.
Legislators who study the state's spending on child welfare say the system is working and emphasize that it should dedicate more dollars to prevention efforts.
Even critics of the system agree: Prevention programs keep Kansas headed in the right direction.
"We think there's a lot more work that has to be done," said Gary Brunk, executive director of Kansas Action for Children. "Until we make a greater investment in the front end, we're going to continue seeing overload."
Brunk's report, "The Kansas Child Welfare System: Where are we? Where should we be going?" scrutinizes the system and the Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services.
However, SRS is pleased with the report's emphasis on the need for preventing child abuse and neglect, said Joyce Allegrucci, assistant secretary of children and family policy.
"That's the dream that I see in this document that so many of us share," Allegrucci said.
Senate Ways and Means Chairman Steve Morris, R-Hugoton, agreed that focusing on prevention keeps families together and eventually decreases the number of children in foster care.
"We've urged SRS to be more aggressive in goals for family preservation," Morris said.
This week Morris' committee plans to make its recommendations for spending on SRS programs, including child welfare, during the state's 2002 fiscal year, which begins July 1. The current SRS budget is almost $1.7 billion.
Last year, for the first time, the Legislature took about $5.1 million out of foster care and moved it into prevention programs.
Allegrucci says this money is making a difference already. Morris said the Senate plans to continue to finance prevention efforts.
Rep. Melvin Neufeld, R-Ingalls, chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on social services, said the system has reversed its problems since privatization, from not taking enough children out of homes to removing too many children.
Neufeld said prevention helps to address his concern that SRS pulls too many children from families.
Morris points out prevention efforts still need some tweaking.
"There's still a perception among parents that if they ask for help, they will get their kids taken away," Morris said.
Allegrucci said she is aware of that perception, which is why SRS is partners with community groups that offer programs like Head Start and Early Head Start.
"In the past, prevention hasn't been well defined and spread between many agencies," Allegrucci said.
In the last year, Allegrucci said she has seen the number of children in foster care start to decrease in communities with organized prevention programs.
Brunk said though more children are getting help, the state doesn't keep track of the children's emotional and mental health.
"I question whether we have really seen a vast improvements because of the lack of information," Brunk said.
Allegrucci says SRS does track that information, but it's in private files. She says the system is accountable.
No one says that more can't be done.
But Allegrucci is optimistic that with the support of legislators and the suggestions of children's advocates, Kansas will stay on the frontier's edge.
"There's no question in my mind," she said.