Topeka Kansas child welfare officials said Tuesday that they can find no link between the rising number of children in foster care and recently enacted laws that make it harder for people to qualify for welfare benefits.
But two researchers at the University of Kansas who recently completed a national study say they have found evidence linking tough welfare reform laws like those enacted in Kansas with higher rates of child abuse and foster care placements.
Steve Greene, director of policy and legislative affairs at the Kansas Department for Children and Families, told an oversight committee that the agency could find only a small number of children in foster care whose families had recently lost welfare benefits.
“We actually have some data. There isn’t a correlation,” Greene told the Child Welfare System Task Force.
Greene and other DCF officials said a more likely explanation for the growth in foster care cases is a rising rate of drug abuse. Since 2012, the number of children removed from their homes because of parental substance abuse has grown 42 percent, to 1,852 cases in fiscal year 2017, according to DCF statistics.
Parental substance abuse now accounts for 46 percent of all the children placed in foster care. That’s up from 36 percent of all cases in 2012.
That task force was established earlier this year to do a complete review of the state’s child welfare system. Lawmakers had called for a review in the wake of reports about children dying or being abused while in state custody, as well as a number of Post Audit reports that faulted DCF’s management of the foster care system.
In 2015, when conservatives controlled both chambers of the Legislature, Kansas enacted what was called the HOPE Act, or “Hope, Opportunity and Prosperity for Everyone.”
Among other things, that law reduced the length of time people could receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF benefits, also known as cash assistance, from 60 months to 36 months. It also imposed strict work requirements on recipients.
Many of those changes merely codified policies that had been adopted during the Brownback administration.
Lawmakers first began questioning the link between those changes and the rising number of children in foster care earlier this month after receiving new projections about the cost of social service case loads.
According to figures from DCF, since 2011 those policy changes have resulted in more than 30,000 people becoming ineligible for TANF benefits, with another 12,000 expected to become ineligible over the next two years.
Kansas is just one of several states that have enacted strict eligibility rules for welfare benefits, and researchers at KU now say those laws can be linked to increases in child abuse and foster care cases.
KU economics professor Donna Ginther, who is director of the Center for Science Technology and Economic Policy, and Michelle Johnson-Motoyama, an associate professor in KU’s School of Social Welfare, recently completed a national study funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that looked at the impact such laws have on the social safety net system in the United States.
During a phone interview Tuesday, Ginther said that states like Kansas that enacted such laws have seen increases in documented abuse cases and foster care case loads ranging from 12 to 23 percent.
She also challenged DCF’s finding of no correlation between children in foster care and children in families receiving TANF benefits, saying that the laws are intended to make people ineligible for benefits or to discourage them from even applying for benefits in the first place.
“They’re not looking at the number of families who tried to get benefits and were either diverted or denied benefits,” Ginther said. “That may reconcile the two.”
Ginther and Johnson-Motoyama are scheduled to present their research during a conference on the KU campus Dec. 15.
Also during Tuesday’s meeting, DCF officials responded to, but did not entirely deny, allegations published recently by the Kansas City Star that agency officials were ordered to shred personal notes about critical cases and to avoid putting anything in writing that would document agency mistakes.
In a story published Sunday, the Star quoted Dianne Keech, a former deputy director of Prevention and Protection Services at the agency, as saying she was ordered to shred personal notes following a staff meeting about critical cases. She was also quoted as saying she was unable to implement a systemwide review of abuse and neglect cases because administrators didn’t want mistakes put in writing.
When Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, asked Greene about that article, he and other agency officials in the committee room initially declined to offer any comment. When the panel returned from lunch, however, the agency issued a statement:
“During Ms. Keech’s time with the department, she claims the agency’s attorney directed staff to keep information from the public’s reach by shredding all notes,” the statement read. “This is not an accurate statement. Ms. Keech is likely referring to direction given to staff that they should not include personal notes in case files for incident review. A personal note for example, would be thoughts or opinions that are not relevant to the case itself. This is not an effort to keep information from the public, but rather an effort to ensure the file only contains facts/observations pertinent to the case.”
The Journal-World was unable to contact Keech for a reaction to that statement.