TOPEKA (TNS) — The Kansas agency in charge of child welfare failed to meet 16 standards for keeping children safe and giving them a stable home over the past year.
The Department for Children and Families this week disclosed a report tracking 30 performance measurements. On more than half, the agency's performance didn't meet federal and state standards.
The shortfall shows the agency still needs to improve after a year of intense scrutiny that led to changes in leadership and a push for better performance. The DCF said it has implemented several initiatives to improve.
Advocates say the depth of the problems is significant.
"I'm not sure that there has been a full acknowledgment of the numbers that are on this sheet," Benet Magnuson, director of the social justice group Kansas Appleseed, said of the report.
The report covered July 1, 2017, through June 30, 2018, and used the DCF's own data.
Among its findings:
• Children had 8.9 homes for every 1,000 days they were in foster care — more than double the standard of 4.12.
• The agency assessed family strengths and needs within 30 days just 66 percent of the time. Standards call for timely assessments 95 percent of the time.
• Children were adopted in less than two years just 17.6 percent of the time. The standard is more than 26.8 percent.
The report "tells us we still have a long ways to go," said Rep. Jarrod Ousley, a Merriam Democrat and member of a state child welfare task force. The DCF provided the report on Monday as the task force met but didn't discuss it during the meeting.
Missing performance standards is not a new problem for the DCF. The agency has missed more than a dozen standards for at least the last three years.
DCF spokeswoman Taylor Forrest said in a statement that the agency "has implemented several initiatives to best serve the children and families of Kansas and improve agency and federal outcome measures."
On the most recent report, the agency also fell short of standards related to placing children in permanent homes within a year and minimizing re-entry into foster care.
It also failed to keep children in the same school at least 25 percent of the time. Children were kept in the same school only 15.7 percent of the time.
Although the DCF didn't meet 16 standards listed on the report, it did meet a dozen others.
For example, 6.4 percent of children who the DCF found had been maltreated experienced further maltreatment. That's better than the federal standard of 9.1 percent.
The DCF report also measured each region on the 30 performance measures. In most cases, when one region was below standard, most of them were.
The DCF report provides a window into the agency's performance as public scrutiny ratcheted up over the past year. Secretary Gina Meier-Hummel took over from long-time secretary Phyllis Gilmore in December 2017 and made a number of leadership and policy changes.
Forrest said that upon Meier-Hummel's arrival, "it was clear that several things needed to be addressed and improved upon."
Foster care 'couch surfing'
The large number of foster care placements children cycle through is perhaps the most striking detail from the report.
Although a child is supposed to go through only 4.12 placements or less for every 1,000 days in foster care, Kansas children go through placements at a rate of 8.9 per 1,000 days.
In the Kansas City region, the rate is as high as 11.7 placements for every 1,000 days spent in foster care.
Magnuson, the Kansas Appleseed director, has helped hold town hall meetings across the state on the foster care system. He said the data on the DCF's report is reflected in the comments he hears at those events.
The frequency with which children cycle through foster homes is mentioned often, he said, "to the point where the words that I have heard is 'couch surfing.'"
Some 4,200 children were placed into foster care last year in Kansas. On the flip side, about 3,800 exited foster care.
At the end of June, nearly 7,600 children were in foster care in Kansas in total.
Christie Appelhanz, director of the Children's Alliance of Kansas, said the state's child welfare system lacks the capacity it needs to perform better.
"The lack of placement stability is the result of the chaos we have in the system and the stress we have in the system," Appelhanz said.
Forrest, the DCF spokeswoman, said the agency will begin using a new system with real-time data in July to locate foster homes for children. It says that system will be more efficient.
To improve performance overall, the DCF has begun what it calls rapid permanency reviews. Under the process, case managers and supervisors participate in reviews and must take steps to improve.
The DCF has also launched a pilot program called Icebreakers, which is designed to create conversations between birth parents and foster parents within 10 days of a long-term foster care placement. The program will be implemented statewide in 2019.
The DCF is also attempting to shift its focus to the entire family rather than individual children in an effort to "change the culture around non-abuse and neglect assignments," Forrest said.
Task force recommendations
The DCF delivered the report to the state's child welfare task force, which began hearing recommendations this week on how to improve and transform the state's child welfare system.
The recommendations, produced by working groups, have not been approved by the task force, and one working group has yet to submit its ideas. Still, they are expected to guide the report the task force produces in the coming months. The key recommendations include:
• Increase funding to recruit and retain staff.
• Create a single web-based case management system to allow easier data sharing.
• Allow young adults to seamlessly re-enter the child welfare system after exiting.
Overall, Meier-Hummel appears receptive to the recommendations and in several cases, she said the agency has moved forward with efforts to improve in areas examined by the working groups.
It's unclear how much influence Meier-Hummel will have going forward. She serves under Gov. Jeff Colyer, who will no longer be governor come January. Whoever wins the governor's race may appoint a new DCF leader.
The task force heard brief presentations on the recommendations on Monday. It has yet to debate what recommendations to adopt for its final report.
"I'm encouraged by the recommendations I've heard so far today," said Rep. Linda Gallagher, R-Lenexa. "I'm very much looking forward to what our final report will contain."