TOPEKA — Children's advocates on Wednesday discussed a federal law that could send millions of dollars into the state aimed at preventing child abuse and neglect.

The Family First Prevention Services Act signed in February allocates resources to address substance abuse, mental health and in-home skills training for parents.

Christie Appelhanz, executive director of Children's Alliance of Kansas, said advocates had been working on the measure for more than a decade. It is best for kids to be with their parents, she said, but funding has focused on foster care and not on keeping family units together.

"Finally, the funding is catching up with the best practices," Appelhanz said.

Kansas must match 50 percent of the federal dollars to receive the funding. Appelhanz described that as "a good return on investment."

However, the state has repeatedly turned down federal funding incentives by not expanding the Medicaid program.

The forum Wednesday aimed to develop recommendations that may be presented to the Legislature to secure the match.

About 75 people participated in the event, which was held at The Pennant in downtown Topeka. Following a panel discussion, working groups examined policy reforms addressing prevention options and strategies.

Gina Meier-Hummel, secretary of the Kansas Department for Children and Families, said the agency was supportive of the new law. 

"In terms of changing the landscape for families and changing the landscape in child welfare across the country, it's absolutely critical that we do more to support families and do prevention work," Meier-Hummel said.

DCF is conducting a cost analysis and will present that information in the 2019 legislative session.

Nina Shaw-Woody, executive director of the Kansas Family Advisory Network, said the funding will give families resources that will help stop unhealthy cycles. She was particularly enthusiastic about bolstering in-home parent education.

"That's the heart of where the issue is," she said.

Rachel Marsh, executive director of public policy for Saint Francis Community Services, said she hopes the funding will lead to a reduction in the number of children who are removed from their homes. Marsh said they typically serve children after abuse has occurred, but she was excited about the prospect of helping children before abuse happens.

Rep. Linda Gallagher, R-Lenexa, and Rep. Jarrod Ousley, D-Merriam, both working group members of the Child Welfare System Task Force, also spoke at the forum.