Audit finds problems in privatized foster care system, faults DCF for lax oversight

Phyllis Gilmore, Secretary of the Kansas Department for Children and Families responds to the latest audit critical of the state's foster care program during a meeting of the Legislative Post Audit Committee, April 28, 2017.

? The private nonprofit agencies that manage Kansas’ foster care system do not have the capacity in many parts of the state to handle the volume of cases they deal with, and the Kansas Department for Children and Families often does not conduct adequate oversight of those contractors.

Those are the findings of a Legislative Post Audit report on the foster care program that was delivered to lawmakers Friday.

However, auditors also said there would be enormous costs for the state if it decided to take back control and operation of the program itself.

Phyllis Gilmore, Secretary of the Kansas Department for Children and Families responds to the latest audit critical of the state's foster care program during a meeting of the Legislative Post Audit Committee, April 28, 2017.

The report was the third and final part of a comprehensive audit that lawmakers ordered following two deaths in 2014 of children who were in the foster care system.

The first audit, released in July, found that DCF was not doing enough to protect the safety of children in foster care. The second, released in September, said the agency was failing to meet many state and federal requirements for foster care programs.

The third phase of the audit was originally intended to examine how well the privatized system was performing compared to the old state-run program before it was privatized in 1997.

But auditors said there weren’t sufficient records or data from the old system to make a valid comparison, and so the audit focused instead on the performance of the private contractors, DCF’s oversight of those contracts and an analysis of what it would cost for the state to take back operation of the system.

Under the current system, two private nonprofit agencies manage the state’s foster care system. KVC, formerly known as Kaw Valley Center, handles cases in the eastern one-third of the state, including Douglas County. And St. Francis Community Services provides service in central and western Kansas.

St. Francis Community Services is not affiliated with St. Francis hospital in Topeka.

Those agencies are in charge of hiring case workers, subcontracting with foster parents and group home facilities for children in their region, and making sure that children in the system receive the physical and mental health services they require. DCF, in turn, is supposed to monitor the performance of the contractors to make sure they comply with the terms of their contracts.

Among the audit’s findings:

• In 43 counties, there were not enough open beds, either in foster homes or group homes, to accommodate all the children needing placement. Douglas County was listed as one of 17 counties with “limited” open bed capacity. As a result, hundreds of children in the system are placed in settings more than 100 miles from their original home.

• There is low morale and high turnover among case managers employed by the two contractors, mainly due to the large caseloads they are asked to handle. That means many children in foster care change case managers multiple times during the time they are in state custody.

• All of the licensed case managers and unlicensed “family support” workers who were surveyed in the audit met the education and licensure requirements of the state. But nearly half of the family support workers lacked the required work experience for those positions.

• Although most children in foster care receive the physical and mental health services they require, the audit found that some do not, usually due to a lack of community resources in certain parts of the state.

• DCF’s monitoring process does not capture all the management-level information it needs to ensure contract compliance, and it does not maintain adequate information to ensure children are being placed in appropriate foster homes.

• Over a 13-year period beginning in 2000, there has been little change in Kansas’ performance on 11 federal standards for outcomes for children and families in foster care systems.

In response, DCF Secretary Phyllis Gilmore acknowledged many of the issues raised in the audit and said steps are being taken to recruit more social workers and strengthen oversight of the contracts.

Among other things, she said, starting July 1, DCF will stop hiring outside reviewers to conduct annual inspections of licensed foster homes and instead will conduct those inspections itself.

She also said that in years past, the agency then known as the Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services had taken a “hands-off” approach in its relationships with child welfare contractors, but that the agency today is undergoing a “culture change” and is being more proactive in making sure contractors meet the terms of their agreements.

Gilmore also said that part of the staffing shortage is due to Kansas’ strict requirements for working in the field of social welfare, which include a requirement that individuals have at least a bachelor’s degree in social work.

She noted that enrollment in those degree programs has been declining both in Kansas and nationally, even though demand for those graduates has been climbing, and many other states allow people to be licensed with other kinds of degrees such as psychology, sociology or a related field.

Overall, though, she insisted that Kansas is doing a good job protecting children in foster care.

“According to our federal partners, Kansas has one of the safest child welfare systems in the country,” she told the committee.

Rep. Ed Trimmer, D-Winfield, who serves on the committee and is one of the lawmakers who began calling for a comprehensive audit of the foster care system two years ago, said he was skeptical that DCF will really make major improvements in foster care.

“We’re being given a lot of promises that things will be better. We got those same promises in the previous audit, and there wasn’t a lot of change,” Trimmer said. “I’m hoping they’re telling us the truth this time, but we’ll have to see, and I think we need to continue to monitor them.”