By Blaise Mesa – Kansas News Service
TOPEKA, Kansas — Foster children still regularly sleep in offices instead of homes despite the Kansas Department for Children and Families settling a lawsuit by agreeing to end the practice.
In one case, an autistic child spent a month in an office because no foster home was available.
The state was sued four years ago because advocates said children were moving from homes or offices so often it made them effectively homeless. Some children bounced from offices to different foster homes as many as 100 times.
As part of a settlement with Kansas Appleseed, Children’s Rights and The National Center for Youth Law, DCF agreed to make a range of changes to bring more stability to the lives of foster children — kids who are ostensibly being rescued from chaotic lives.
For starters, the state promised to stop placing children in offices unless there were “extraordinary circumstances.” Yet some children have nowhere to go because they refuse to get out of a car or “simply leave the facility through the front door.” The biggest barrier in placing, the agency says, is a shortage of foster homes that cater to children’s “extensive medical, mental health and behavioral needs.”
The lawsuit settlement said “a lack of safe and/or appropriate placement options does not constitute Extraordinary Circumstances.”
DCF said 79 children spent 214 total nights in offices from January 2021 through May 2022. In 2021 alone, 53 children spent 167 total days in an office, said Teresa Woody of Kansas Appleseed. Children catching COVID or being removed from a home late at night could count as extraordinary reasons, but the department doesn’t know how often those two things happened nor did it say what foster care company failed to place the most children.
Kansas’ foster system is run by a handful of private contractors who handle placement, case management and all other aspects of the system. No other state privatizes foster care as much. Woody said DCF needs to keep a closer eye on those companies.
“Having a decentralized, privatized system does not help that situation at all,” she said. “The state just has things that are out of their hands (and) are out of sight out of mind.”
Fewer children are sleeping in offices than a few years ago. The Associated Press reported in 2019 that more than 70 children slept in an office between January and May of that year. It reported that foster care contractors had four children stay overnight in January and February, 12 in March, 35 in April and 16 in the first 11 days of May.
DCF said it has stronger youth engagement, more services for high-needs children and more partnerships to help with “emergency overnight traumatic disruptions.”
The agency said after children sleep in offices, members of DCF staff meet within 48 hours to understand gaps in service and discuss what other assistance is needed. In those meetings, the staff goes over the issues with the placement and explores what can be improved for the next time. They also work to find family and understand what type of placement the child wants.
Woody said DCF has made some improvements, but she is frustrated that children sleep in offices in the first place.
“It is better, but it’s not enough,” she said. “There have to be facilities for kids who have mental health problems. There have to be placements for them.”
Without adequate mental health treatment, those children may end up in detention facilities, like Cedric Lofton. Lofton was a foster teen who died in a detention center after he was restrained and pinned to the floor. Woody says children are placed in those facilities because beds aren’t available elsewhere.
DCF will soon roll out therapeutic foster homes that allow licensed foster families to take higher needs children. Caseworkers will check in daily during the early months of the new program, children will have therapists and the children’s families will be involved. Foster families would have a more collaborative role in the child’s treatment plan.
Tanya Keys, deputy secretary for programs and services at DCF, said even one home in an area will make a difference.
“We want to increase placement stability and increase options over time for youth,” Keys said. “It’s one of our tools that we would hope would reduce and ultimately eliminate the instances of failure to place.”
The news of children sleeping in offices comes a month before a progress report on the lawsuit settlement is published. An independent organization is reviewing key metrics of the lawsuit to see if DCF is actually making the improvements promised when the case was settled.
“We’re very anxious to get the report and to see what … is being done,” Woody said.
Blaise Mesa reports on criminal justice and social services for the Kansas News Service in Topeka. You can follow him on Twitter @Blaise_Mesa or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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