The Kansas Department for Children and Families’ foster care system complied with federal standards for protecting children from abuse and neglect, according to a federal review highlighted in a newly released state audit.

But the agency failed to reach substantial compliance on two-thirds of the benchmarks examined, the review found.

The federal review concluded DCF wasn’t in compliance with requirements that children are safely maintained in their homes whenever possible and appropriate, that children have permanency and stability in their living situations and that family connections are preserved for children, among other measures.

The agency faces a $535,000 penalty stemming from noncompliance found in the 2015 examination called the Child and Family Services Review. The penalty has been suspended, however, pending implementation of an improvement plan.

A Legislative Post Audit report released this past week drew attention to the federal CFSR review. DCF responded to the report by touting its performance in relation to other states and saying it isn’t satisfied with the results.

DCF Secretary Phyllis Gilmore said the review is designed to show how the agency can improve and is designed in such a way that no state achieves full compliance. Gilmore indicated she welcomed the review, saying the agency is more interested in where shortcomings exist than in what it is doing well.

While speaking to lawmakers Wednesday, Gilmore said other states look to Kansas as a leader.

“We are sought to find out what we are doing in the state. But when I say that, that doesn’t mean that I think we’ve arrived. I do not think that. I know that there’s much that we can still do,” Gilmore said. “But when we’re compared to the other states, Kansas is doing well in many, many areas. And you all need to feel proud about that.”

Kansas has seen multiple high-profile incidents involving children during the past few years. The 2013 death of a 4-year-old Hiawatha boy, who had been reintegrated with his father by a state foster care contractor before his father beat him to death, led to a federal lawsuit against DCF. The agency is in the process of settling.

In July 2014, a foster dad left a 10-month-old girl inside a car while he smoked marijuana. The girl died.

“There have only been two children who have died who were in custody since 2011. I believe I have that statistic correct. Children in custody are not suffering maltreatment while they are in custody. That is where Kansas excels,” Gilmore said.

Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, rebuked Gilmore for the remark.

“Madam Secretary, I have to take exception with your prefacing to children that we’ve only had — it’s two children,” Kelly said.

Gilmore said she stood corrected. And although several Democrats asked pointed questions of the secretary, DCF received a friendlier reception from Republicans.

“I think maybe we glossed over the fact that the highest priority for any care for children should be their safety and protection,” Rep. Peggy Mast, R-Emporia, said before asking Gilmore to repeat favorable statistics about foster care safety.

DCF points to the safety of children as one of its best-performing areas under the federal review. The examination found the agency in compliance with benchmarks measuring the timeliness of initiating investigations, recurrence of maltreatment, and maltreatment in foster care.

The CFSR said Kansas needs to improve on measurements of risk and safety assessment management and services to family to protect children and prevent re-entry into foster care. DCF wasn’t in compliance on the question of whether children are safely maintained in their homes whenever possible and appropriate.

According to the agency, Kansas ranked second in the nation in measurements of protection from abuse and neglect in the most recently completed review when compared to all states. And DCF said it ranked ninth on whether children are safely maintained in their homes. That review occurred in 2008.

DCF says that under the 2015 review, it currently ranks first in the nation in protection from abuse and neglect and ranks second in safely maintaining children in their homes. However, by DCF’s own admission, most states have yet to undergo the latest review.

The CFSR has come under criticism in the past. A 2009 report by Chapin Hall, a policy research center at the University of Chicago, said the various measures within the CFSR sometimes conflict. For example, the goal of avoiding placing a child in foster care if possible and providing placement stability can conflict.

Rep. Ed Trimmer, D-Winfield, has cited critiques by the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform. The group has been critical of the CFSR for reviewing only small numbers of cases selected by the state.

“In other words, small sample sizes, and the states are allowed to pick the sample to give to them to evaluate the states by,” Trimmer said.

Gilmore said the selection process is random. DCF said it provided a randomized sample of 65 cases.

“We believe Kansas’ performance in the CFSR — a comprehensive, exhaustive, verifiable and valid report — demonstrates children in our child welfare system are safe,” Gilmore said in a written response to the audit.

Changes made

Last week’s Legislative Post Audit report came after a scathing audit of the foster care system in July. That audit found DCF didn’t check the backgrounds of people in foster homes as often as needed, didn’t ensure monthly in-person visits take place and granted nearly all requests for exceptions to rules governing foster homes.

DCF updated lawmakers on progress to address the issues. Among the changes:

n As of August, each person 10 years or older affiliated with a foster home will undergo an annual background check.

n By the end of the year, foster care contractors must take steps to improve documentation of monthly visits.

n Beginning Sept. 1, foster applicants must now undergo a financial assessment, and annually afterward, to ensure foster parents are financially independent before receiving any reimbursement payments.

The July audit also raised issues related to conflict of interest. The incentives of providing the best care for each child while reducing costs can, at times, clash.

According to Gilmore, the most immediate and urgent change needed is that foster care contractors should no longer be allowed to inspect their own homes. Gilmore indicated DCF is studying the steps needed to assume that responsibility.

“We must be cautious to act in a way that preserves the quantity and quality of foster homes needed in order to keep up with the number of children coming into care,” Gilmore said in a written statement. “This is a difficult task but an essential one if we are to keep children safe.”

In addition, the July audit found that during a 15-month period, DCF granted 98 percent of about 1,100 requests by foster care contractors to waive capacity limits and sleeping space requirements for foster homes — in many cases attempting to keep siblings together. Auditors reported they saw no evidence of DCF scrutiny or review of the requests that were approved.

Gilmore said DCF is now focusing on ensuring contractors don’t exceed capacity regulations in cases where a different home might be available that has room.

“For instance, perhaps a (contractor) is requesting to exceed the capacity regulation in one of its own foster homes instead of referring the children to a different CPA that has a home available with enough room to accommodate them,” Gilmore said.

Another audit report, examining privatization of foster care, is due early next year.