High-profile child abuse and neglect cases catch the spotlight and capture public attention.
One of those occurred in June, when a concerned resident spotted two children blindfolded, with their hands bound, in the parking lot of a Lawrence Walmart, sparking the immediate removal of five children from their parents’ custody.
Another was the case in which a Lawrence woman was charged with manslaughter, after her 5-year-old child died after ingesting opiates in April.
However, there are many other cases of abuse and neglect coming through the court system on a regular basis that highlight the failure of parents, for a variety of reasons, to provide basic care for their children, said Douglas County District Judge Peggy Kittel, who handles some of the county’s child in need of care cases.
“They’re very sad,” Kittel said. “It’s the kids coming to your door for water or food.”
Cases of children being removed from parental custody are on the rise in Douglas County, swelling the number of local children in foster care, according to numbers from the Kansas Department of Children and Families.
In just 11 months of the state’s current fiscal year, 67 children in Douglas County were removed from their homes. That’s about double the number, 34, removed in all of 2008. In addition, the number of children currently in foster care in the county, 82, compares to just 52 in 2009.
“We’ve just had so many kids coming into custody in the past six months,” said Diana Frederick, director of Douglas County CASA.
Frederick said the surge in cases has created a 60-child waiting list for her agency’s services, which matches children in foster care with trained advocates.
While it’s clear the numbers have increased, the reasons for that increase are more fuzzy.
Kittel said it’s difficult to point to one cause, but, anecdotally, she said she’s seeing more cases of drug-addicted parents who are unable to care for their children. Data provided by the DCF confirm that, in the past 11 months, drug abuse by parents is the No. 1 reason for a child being removed from his or her home in Douglas County, accounting for more than 20 percent of removals.
“If you can’t manage yourself, how are you going to take care of your kids?” said Kittel, adding that by the time a family gets to her courtroom, they’re dealing with serious abuse and neglect. “They’re very sad. Usually it’s a crisis mode when they come in.”
In an effort to stem the tide of removals from custody in Kansas — which number about 3,500 annually — DCF gained legislation approval last session for $1 million to fund a program to reach out to families before it is necessarily to remove children.
Twenty new DCF workers are in the process of being hired and spread throughout the state to help struggling families access services, said Gina Meier-Hummel, DCF director of prevention and protective services.
“So families don’t have to get to a crisis situation,” she said.
The program, termed “differential response,” will provide a more partnership-based relationship with families, as opposed to the potentially adversarial process that occurs when DCF investigates abuse cases, said Dona Booe, director of the Kansas Children’s Service League.
It’s aimed at families who are stretched thin and need help.
“How can families really rise up?” said Booe.
The program’s a start, but more is needed, Booe said.
“I think there’s a much greater opportunity in Kansas,” she said. But, “it’s a matter of funding.”
Frederick called on Douglas County residents to consider how they can help the growing need, such as providing foster care or volunteering as a CASA advocate.
“As a community, we really need to band together,” she said.