TOPEKA — Natalie Zarate entered state custody when she was 11 years old, removed from a physically abusive mother and placed in a group home for foster children.
Now 23, she trembles when she thinks about her time at EmberHope Youthville in Newton.
Physicians placed Zarate on "crazy medications" she later learned were unnecessary, including one that caused her to hallucinate. She was confined to her room most of the time.
If she acted out, she was sent to the "timeout room," a small space behind a metal door that was used to tame the behavior of kids who were out of control. Sometimes, staff banished her to the timeout room for trying to defend herself from older kids.
“I remember one time being crushed and slammed by five different people," Zarate said. "I’m 12 years old at the time. I weigh about 97 pounds solid. That’s a lot for a child to have to deal with, just being slammed and tossed around."
Nickaila Sandate, president and CEO of EmberHope Youthville, said the safety and well-being of children "is at the forefront of everything we do" and that all reported incidents are taken seriously.
When Zarate left Youthville, she bounced for six years among foster parents and a series of temporary homes within the state's child welfare system. Zarate, who lives in the Kansas City area, now volunteers with Kansas Appleseed and other child advocacy groups. She shares her story to let other foster kids know they aren't alone and to add to the voices calling for change.
“Sharing my story is going to touch the most people," Zarate said. "They don’t really understand what happens behind closed doors.”
Lawmakers have intensified their interest in addressing the failings of a child welfare system in crisis, and many are frustrated that Gov. Laura Kelly's administration hasn't shown more progress in her first year in office.
Kelly said there is no one better suited to the task than Laura Howard, her secretary for the Department for Children and Families, and that a funding boost authorized by the Legislature in 2019 will make a difference.
"There were just no social workers to do anything on family preservation or anything on reintegration, so kids were going into the foster care system and not able to get out because we just didn’t have the resources," Kelly said. "The state just wasn’t holding up their end of the bargain."
An investigation by The Topeka Capital-Journal and KCUR highlighted the severe instability in the foster care system. Kansas added thousands of children to the system as the Legislature adopted policies through the Hope Act that reduced aid to struggling families. Former Republican Gov. Sam Brownback championed the changes as a way to encourage parents into the workforce and break families from a cycle of government dependency.
The result was a spike in runaways. At any time, up to 80 children are missing from state custody.
Children on the street are vulnerable to human trafficking, and the investigation highlighted the case of Hope Zeferjohn, a Topeka native who is one of 13 known cases in which a girl fled state custody, was trafficked for sex and sent to prison for prostitution-related crimes.
Zeferjohn asked Kelly for a pardon, and child advocates have proposed legislation that would offer a path for victims of human trafficking to clear their criminal record.
It remains unclear whether the Legislature will show an appetite for restoring food assistance to low-income families or other provisions of the Hope Act.
"We know there’s a direct correlation between that and the number of kids in our welfare system," Kelly said, "because we’re already talking about some pretty vulnerable families. You take what little safety net we’re providing out from underneath them, they crumble — the kids go in the system. So I hope that the Legislature will recognize that and do what they need to do.”
On Wednesday, Kelly proposed formation of a new Department of Human Services that would streamline services to children and families by combining DCF, the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services and the juvenile services division of the Department of Corrections.
Sen. Molly Baumgardner, a Republican from Louisburg, said lawmakers may be willing to invest more in family members who take care of children who are removed from a home in lieu of placing the kids in foster care. Currently, the state provides $10 per day to the family member who takes care of the child.
“When a child arrives with what may be just a backpack full of items, $10 a day isn’t enough to make sure that child has clothing and shoes and personal items that they’re going to need and the food they’re going to need," Baumgardner said. "If the goal through the Hope Act was to keep a child within the family, we have to do more to address what is going to that family member until the issues at home get addressed.”
Kansas Appleseed, which sued the state over the instability of the foster care system, is pursuing legislation that would create an office of the child advocate.
The office would be administered by itself, independent of DCF, with leadership appointed by the governor and chief justice of the Kansas Supreme Court. The appointments would be confirmed by the Senate.
The goal is to add transparency to the foster care system and look at systemic problems, such as children not being screened quickly, problems with home visits or a lack of mental health services.
"It's going to take a long time to fix the Kansas foster care system," said Joey Hentzler, director of advocacy with Kansas Appleseed. "Not one session, not two sessions, but maybe five to 10 years of work.”
The two nonprofit contractors who handle child placement services for the state — Saint Francis Ministries and KVC Kansas — have outlined priorities for the Legislature that focus on prevention efforts through a wide range of programs and services.
Examples include programs that provide early childhood education, mental health services, substance use treatment, and housing and transportation.
Other initiatives include the implementation of juvenile crisis intervention centers and reducing the wait list for psychiatric residential treatment facilities.
Christie Appelhanz, executive director of the Children's Alliance, said it remains critical that the Legislature adopt the two dozen recommendations made a year ago by the Kansas Child Welfare Task Force.
Some of those ideas, like investing in social workers and participation in the federal Families First Prevention Services Act, already were addressed by the Legislature. Appelhanz said maximizing investments in Family First is a top priority for this session, along with increasing administrative rates for child placement agencies so they, too, can hire more social workers.
"We can’t afford to allocate any more resources to feel-good ideas that have little basis in fact or quantifiable results for children and families," Appelhanz said. "When the combined knowledge of the experts in the state have come up with a plan, emotional responses should be ignored until we implement that plan."