Topeka — Hundreds of children in the state's foster care system could return home sooner if their parents had quicker access to necessary mental health evaluations, a panel of juvenile court judges said Thursday.
"I have plenty of willing, cooperative parents being told they'll have to wait 60 to 90 days before they can see someone to get a basic evaluation," said Sedgwick County Judge Jim Burgess.
Until the evaluations are complete, Burgess said, the courts cannot begin the processes for returning children to their parents.
Burgess' comments were part of a daylong roundtable discussion sponsored by a legislative committee on children's issues. About 20 judges, prosecutors and guardian ad litem attorneys took part in the discussion.
Burgess was not alone in his assessment.
"Where I am, it takes 30 days to schedule an evaluation and another 60 to 90 days to get it done," said Judge Thomas Saxton, whose district includes Wilson and Allen counties in southeast Kansas.
Currently, 75 percent of the 4,200 children in the state's foster care system are there for at least a year. Twenty-five percent return home within six months.
The delays, Burgess said, are driven by money rather than a scarcity of services.
"If (a parent) has insurance or if they can come up with $800 or $1,000, it's not a problem," he said. "But those are not the folks we're dealing with."
These parents, Burgess said, turn to nonprofit agencies that base their fees on each customer's ability to pay.
"That's what causes the bottleneck," he said. "We're funneling too many people to the same agencies for the same services. They do a good job, but they can't keep up."
In Kansas, services for children in foster care are covered by the state. Services for their parents are not.
"At some point, we need to realize that kids don't get better until their parents get better," Burgess said.
Long waits are not a problem in Douglas County, Judge Jean Shepherd said.
"I have to say that Kaw Valley and SRS are on top of this," she said. "It's not been a problem here for a long time."
Rep. Brenda Landwehr, R-Wichita, who has long argued that community mental health centers don't do enough for children in foster care and their parents, was concerned about Burgess' critique.
"What I heard today tells me this is indeed an issue. What's supposed to be happening isn't happening," said Landwehr, the committee's vice chairwoman.
Mike Hammond, executive director at the Association of Community Mental Health Centers of Kansas, said he would poll his members for a better understanding of the issue.
"If there are delays on our end, we need to find out what they're caused by and respond to those causes," Hammond said. "Maybe we need to have a roundtable with the judges?"