Gov.-elect Kelly to focus early on child welfare reform
photo by: AP Photo/John Hanna
TOPEKA — Gov.-elect Laura Kelly campaigned on a long list of things she wants to change in Kansas, but one of the first things she plans to address after she takes office in January is fixing the state’s beleaguered child welfare system.
In an interview with the Journal-World on Monday, Kelly said one of the first things she plans to push for is increasing the number of social workers and other staff at the Kansas Department for Children and Families who work with children in the state foster care system.
“We need to look at the staffing ratios that are occurring and do what we can to bring those down to reasonable. They’re just off the charts right now,” Kelly said. “There’s no way that people can be expected to get anything done right with the number of cases that they’ve got. So I want to clean up that agency and make sure the state is pulling its fair share of the responsibility for these kids before I look at doing anything with contractors.”
Kelly spoke with the Journal-World Monday, just hours after the State Finance Council — a group made up of the governor and legislative leaders from the House and Senate — approved paying out $75,000 to settle a lawsuit that alleged DCF failed to protect an 18-month-old girl who died of child abuse in 2012.
That was just one of several cases in recent years that have exposed shortcomings at DCF.
Other cases have involved children who have died or been abused while in custody of the foster care system; dozens of children who have run away or otherwise gone missing from foster homes; children who have been forced to sleep in the offices of child welfare agency contractors due to an inability to find another appropriate placement; and children who have been shifted from one foster home to another, often multiple times a year.
Last week, a class action lawsuit was filed against the agency alleging a systemic pattern of inappropriate actions.
Kelly said that in addition to staff shortages, many of the problems in the child welfare system stem from a shortage of psychiatric treatment facilities for troubled children in state custody.
“When we’ve got these kids spending the night in contractors’ offices, or they’re moving them from foster home to foster home, it’s because these kids are incredibly difficult to place,” she said. “And more than likely, most if not all of those kids, years ago, ordinarily would have gone to a psychiatric residential treatment facility.”
Those are facilities that provide out-of-home psychiatric treatment for children and adolescents who cannot be adequately treated in community settings. Kelly said that in recent years, there has been a dramatic decline in the number of such facilities in Kansas, to the point where now only a few hundred beds are available statewide at any given time.
Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, said Monday that she wants to work with Kelly to find solutions for problems in the child welfare agency. But she cautioned that “the new governor” is coming into office with “a nice, long wish list” of plans for increased funding, many of which could meet resistance in the Republican-controlled Legislature if the price tags become too high.
“Well, the new governor has also said that I recognize how seriously damaged our state is, and that yes, I’ve got some priorities that we’ll be focused on this first year, but then we will be prioritizing other things that need to be fixed,” Kelly said in response. “But there’s no way in the world that we’re going to be taking care of everything in one year, or two years.”