For Rachel Marsh, improvements to the child welfare system in Kansas need to start upstream, before a child is taken into state custody.

The vice president of advocacy for Saint Francis Ministries, a nonprofit that handles child placement services for the state of Kansas, says programs that serve parents struggling with mental health issues, poverty and managing a child's behavior all point in the same direction.

"We have to stop looking at a child individually and start looking at whether our families are strong and functioning so that they can take care of children and they don't have to enter into the foster care system," Marsh said in a conversation for The Topeka Capital-Journal's Capitol Insider podcast.


Marsh joined Christie Appelhanz, executive director of the Children's Alliance of Kansas, on the podcast to talk about Gov. Laura Kelly's proposal to reorganize social services under a single umbrella agency.

The governor has proposed formation of the Department of Human Services, which would combine functions of the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services, Department for Children and Families, and juvenile services currently within the Kansas Department of Corrections.

"The idea," Appelhanz said, "is that it would offer a way to provide one door for families to access services. And it's a shift in looking at just individuals or children or juvenile offenders and really taking a whole family approach to meeting the needs of vulnerable Kansans."

Marsh and Appelhanz highlighted prevention efforts already implemented under the Kelly administration, including participation in a federal grant program and a statewide network dedicated to engaging children who are at risk of running away from foster care.

Aided by new funding provided by the Legislature last year, the special response team has lowered the number of kids who are missing at any time from 80 to 50.

"I think this is just a good example of a problem was identified by the Legislature, investments were made, attention was paid and we have seen improvements," Appelhanz said. "And I hope that's a lesson we take and use in other areas of child welfare."

One area that needs more attention: Children who are redirected from juvenile detention to already unstable foster care providers.

A new report from the Legislative Division of Post Audit points to problems with the rollout of juvenile justice reform that was enacted in 2016. The legislation succeeded in reducing the number of incarcerated children, the report found, but the impact on the foster care system is murky.

Stakeholders directly involved in implementing the legislation said juvenile justice reform has had a negative impact, and social workers have complained that the foster care system didn't have enough resources to handle the youths who crossed over from the corrections system.

"We're learning to manage youth differently who have a higher level of behavioral health or more acute needs," Marsh said.

The state has collected $40 million in savings through juvenile justice reform, which was set aside in a special fund, but KDOC spent just $9 million to expand programming for anger management, substance abuse, therapy and other mental health services.

"While we're all celebrating fewer youths who are incarcerated, we didn't build appropriate systems of care to meet the needs of the youths that have come into the child welfare system," Appelhanz said.

Child placements tend to happen within silos: KDADS is responsible for psychiatric treatment facilities, DCF is responsible for finding additional foster homes, and KDOC is responsible for secure care facilities. Appelhanz said reorganization would provide a full array of possibilities for every child in state custody.

"I see potential with the Department of Human Services to talk together in one bucket instead of multiple buckets about how are we meeting the needs of placement for kids no matter what system they're coming through," Appelhanz said.

Marsh said children end up in detention centers and foster care for the same reasons.

"It really is, which system did they come to the attention of?" Marsh said. "Some of this is because when trauma happens, if you haven't yet gained enough resilience to manage that, there's really kind of two different ways you can manifest trauma in a very simplistic look.

"One is that you can take those trauma experiences and internalize them into things like depression or anxiety or self-harming behaviors. The other way is that you can externalize it into aggression and behavior problems, and it's the same trauma."