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Archive for Friday, April 5, 2002

Prevention work pays off for children and SRS

April 5, 2002

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According to the numbers, more children are leaving the state's foster care system than entering.

The trend began in June 2001, when 175 children came in and 272 went out. Over the next three months July through September 942 children left, and 680 entered.

Daisy DeKnight is putting herself through Kansas University. A
sophomore majoring in psychology, DeKnight was in Kansas' foster
care system until "aging out" at 18 years old.

Daisy DeKnight is putting herself through Kansas University. A sophomore majoring in psychology, DeKnight was in Kansas' foster care system until "aging out" at 18 years old.

The October-through-December numbers won't be out until later this month. Nevertheless, it appears to be a trend in the making.

That's certainly the case in Douglas County, where in the second six months of 2001, 17 children were put in foster care nine fewer than in the second six months of 2000.

Also, Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services reports show the Lawrence Area SRS Office, which covers seven counties, had 172 children in out-of-home placements in the third quarter of 2001. No other area office had fewer children in foster homes; in fact, the statewide average was 324.

The Lawrence SRS Area Office covers Douglas, Franklin, Jefferson, Jackson, Atchison, Brown and Doniphan counties.

"I think this shows like it's shown before that we do a lot of prevention-type work here," said Judy Culley, executive director at The Shelter, a social program that figures out which services a family will need to stay together.

"It also shows that prevention works."

A success story

Douglas County, Culley said, is blessed with what can only be described as a deep, unquestioned commitment to doing what's right for children.

"That sounds so simple, but it's true. It's been that way for as long as I can remember and I've been here 20 years," Culley said.

It also helps that Douglas County is neither too big nor too small.

"We're the right size," said Charlie Kuszmaul, a project coordinator at Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center. "Douglas County is big enough to have services available, and yet it's small enough to still have that community connection. We all know each other here."

Other reasons for the county's success:

l Bert Nash's WRAP (Working to Recognize Alternative Possibilities) program helps children deal with social and mental health issues likely to cause problems for them at school.

This year, WRAP is in every elementary, junior high and high school in Douglas County.

l Kaw Valley Center, the region's foster care contractor, has found ways to keep former foster children from re-entering the system after they return home.

l The Shelter is able to enter diversion agreements with juveniles. If followed, these agreements keep them out of juvenile court.

l The Shelter has a family services fund $30,000 from Douglas County, $30,000 from the City of Lawrence that helps troubled families get through immediate financial crises, such as car repairs or rent payments.

l SRS and Kansas University's department of human development run a truancy program that helps keep children in school.

l Douglas County District Court Judge Jean Shepherd has made it clear that if a child is not in danger, she'll not put them in foster care until every effort has been made to keep the child's family together. Shepherd presides over the court's domestic and juvenile caseloads.

'Through the wilderness'

Success hasn't come easy. Like every Kansas community, Douglas County was hit with the abrupt and massive changes brought on by Gov. Bill Graves' decision in 1996 to privatize most of the state's child welfare system.

For Douglas County, that meant fixing a system that few thought was broken.

"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 that it's over, we're back where we started."

This may soon change. Deep cuts in state spending pose a serious threat to prevention services that keep children and families together.

Late last year, Lawrence-based DCCCA laid off 30 percent of its frontline family preservation workers after SRS announced it would cut referrals by 30 percent.

DCCCA (which originally stood for Douglas County Citizens Committee on Alcoholism) is one of the state's two contractors for family preservation services.

"Douglas County has a really good 'prevention infrastructure,' and I like to think we play a significant role in that," said Bruce Beale, DCCCA executive director.

"But if things keep going like they are, I'm afraid we're going to reach a point where we're not going to be able to hold it all together."

If the cuts go through, Kuszmaul and Beale said more troubled families are likely to implode and more children are likely to end up in foster care.

"It's sort of like changing the oil in your car," Kuszmaul said. "You don't have to, but if you don't, you're going have problems later on. It really is a case of 'You can pay now or you can pay a lot more later.'"

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