Kansas children taken into state custody were sleeping in offices because of lack of space

Legislative members of the Child Welfare System Task Force include, from right: Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka; Rep. Linda Gallagher, R-Lenexa; Rep. Steve Alford, chairman, R-Ulysses; Rep. Jarrod Ousley, D-Merriam; and Sen. Barbara Bollier, R-Mission Hills.

A task force reviewing the state’s child welfare system was told Tuesday that dozens of children were taken into state custody in the past year only to be forced to sleep in the offices of state foster care contractors because of lack of space in other facilities.

Many of those children suffered from serious behavioral or psychiatric disorders, and one was a child victim of human trafficking, the state Child Welfare System Task Force was told.

The information came from KVC Kansas and Saint Francis Community Services, the two nonprofit organizations that contract with the Kansas Department for Children and Families to manage its foster care system.

In April of this year, 31 children spent at least one night sleeping in the offices of St. Francis Community Services, including one described as a “child human trafficking survivor.”

The others were described as children with aggressive behaviors, including assault and sexual aggression; children with juvenile offender charges; children at risk of running away; children with suicidal or self-harming behaviors; sibling groups; children with developmental disabilities; children with medical needs; and children with sexualized behavior.

In the past 12 months, KVC reported it has had more than 60 overnight stays in its offices. Many of them had similar behavioral disorders, and 14 of them had been cleared for placement in a psychiatric residential treatment facility, or PRTF, but were waiting for space to become available in one of those facilities.

In addition to those who slept in offices, dozens more were placed in foster homes or other facilities for a single night or short periods of time, even though officials said longer-term placements would have been more appropriate.

Officials from KVC and Saint Francis said there is a shortage in Kansas of foster homes and psychiatric hospital beds.

“Because the number of children has outpaced the number of foster homes that we’ve recruited in Kansas,” said Rachel Marsh, executive director of public policy and an attorney for Saint Francis. “And the second reason is that when, occasionally, there are foster homes … they are not equipped to handle the children with the highest acuity behaviors; we worry about risk to self, harm to self or others.”

Lindsey Stephenson, vice president of operations for KVC, said it is difficult to recruit people willing to serve as foster parents.

“I think it’s a really difficult job. It’s sometimes a thankless job,” she said. “You’re dealing with people and families and emotions. These people are volunteers, and they’re amazing.”

Both Marsh and Stephenson serve as members on the task force.

Some lawmakers on the panel said they were not surprised to hear of children in crisis sleeping in offices.

“I actually used to work sort of in the child welfare world, so it’s not terribly shocking to me,” Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, said after the meeting. “It’s unfortunate that it happens. What I want to do is get to the bottom of it. Why is it happening, and is there a way that we can mitigate the problem?”

“I don’t think you’re ever going to eliminate it,” she added. “You’re just going to get a kid at 10 o’clock at night, and you’re just not going to have a resource. Bless them for fixing up their offices to accommodate these kids.”

DCF Secretary Phyllis Gilmore, a nonvoting, ex-officio member of the task force, said a major reason for the recent rapid increase in the number of children in the child welfare system is a juvenile justice reform bill lawmakers passed in 2016 that was designed to steer juvenile offenders away from the correctional system and toward community-based programs aimed at changing their behavior.

“Then our foster care system is not able to deal with those individuals who have more behavioral issues,” Gilmore said.

Sen. Barbara Bollier, R-Mission Hills, said she believes it is ultimately a political problem that the voters themselves have to confront.

“It really is, it’s down to you and me as a taxpayer saying, ‘I want this taken care of so I’m willing to pay taxes to make sure it is taken care of,’ and being led by a governor that says we’re going to cut taxes, and therefore not have the money, it goes back to that,” Bollier said.

“My hope is that we have a task force like this moving forward — we have elections coming up in a year — that some of these things get discussed as some of the reasons why you would or would not vote for a candidate, and what we want out of Kansas,” she added.

The task force also heard, however, that DCF has been working since 2014 to reduce the number of children taken into custody for reasons other than abuse or neglect, such as drug or alcohol abuse by the parent or the child’s own behavioral disorders.

The task force was established by the Kansas Legislature this year and includes both lawmakers and stakeholders in the child welfare system. Tuesday’s meeting was the group’s second since being established.

The task force is scheduled to deliver a progress report in January when lawmakers convene for the 2018 session. But it will continue meeting throughout 2018 and will deliver its final report to the Legislature in January 2019, when a new administration comes into office.