A pair of Kansas judges peppered a legislative task force Tuesday with concerns about staffing, bureaucratic and communication shortcomings of state government and private contractors responsible for care of children subjected to abuse or neglect.
The bipartisan Child Welfare System Task Force received fresh evidence the Kansas Department for Children and Families, in collaboration with two contractors, was operating a child-in-need-of-care system with social workers overwhelmed by deep caseloads, dysfunctional turnover among caseworkers, tardy and inaccurate reporting to the courts, unrealistic standards for reintegrating families and poor communication among DCF, contractors and the courts.
“Caseworkers are carrying enormous caseloads that prevent the attention these kids require,” said Taylor Wine, a district magistrate judge serving Osage, Franklin, Coffey and Anderson counties. “A common phrase in the courtroom is ‘the previous caseworker’ tied to a reason why something is not done or something is unknown.”
Wine said the state’s system was plagued by a snail-paced adoption process and lack of prompt drug or mental health services for adults in rural and urban areas.
“Not only do I agree those are issues, but I agree that he has identified some of the most important and glaring issues that we have. Absolutely,” said Wyandotte County District Court Judge Daniel Cahill, who serves on the child task force.
The 2017 Legislature formed the task force amid controversy about DCF’s supervision of thousands of children removed from homes in Kansas. DCF contracts with KVC Health Systems and Saint Francis Community Services in the privatized operation.
In 2016, the Legislature’s audit division said DCF put foster children at risk by failing to adopt eight of nine recommendations it received after a 2013 evaluation of the agency. DCF Secretary Phyllis Gilmore plans to retire Dec. 1, but Republican and Democratic legislators had called for her resignation from the administration of Gov. Sam Brownback, who has praised her service to the state.
The task force’s meeting followed a legislative budget committee’s review of data showing the Brownback administration’s policy reforms made 44,000 low-income people ineligible for cash assistance at the same time the number of children in foster care grew.
In response to inquiries by the task force, DCF reported 77 children in foster care were missing as of Sunday. Ten were under the age of 11, while 32 ranged in age from 12 to 14.
“The question needs to be asked: What is the procedure being followed to find these kids? You absolutely worry about trafficking,” said task force member Barbara Bollier, a Senate Republican from Mission Hills.
Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, said shortcomings in the state’s network of substance abuse treatment facilities contributed to an increase in children taken from homes. From 2012 to 2017, the number annually removed due to a parent’s abuse or alcohol or drugs climbed from 1,302, or 36 percent of the total, to 1,852, or 46 percent of the total. While removals linked to alcohol abuse diminished slightly, the number removed due to methamphetamine use doubled.
“The significant increase in the number of children taken from homes where there is substance abuse is attributable to the fact we don’t have enough treatment facilities for the parents,” said Kelly, a task force member.
Wine, the magistrate judge, said reintegration of children often hinged on whether the parent received mental health counseling and drug rehabilitation. He said the state didn’t dedicate enough money to alleviate transportation challenges experienced by adults seeking those services.
He said DCF contractors could better deal with staff turnover by implementing good business practices, including taking rigorous notes, to smooth transition from caseworker to caseworker.
A family’s reunification was unnecessarily complicated, in one instance, by KVC Health Systems’ refusal to recommend reintegration after the parents moved to another state to avoid drug-using friends and provided proof of valid housing, drug counseling and clean drug tests for several months, the magistrate said.
In a set of adoption cases, Wine said, DCF’s failure to arrange a home assessment, provide medical records or complete a legal review extended adoption of one child to 590 days, two children to 513 days and another child to 362 days.
“It required me to call DCF in Topeka, under threat of court order, to get these adoptions finished,” the judge said. “I encourage the task force to recommend prompt and strict time lines for agency adoptions.”