Kids regularly run away from Kansas foster homes. Some have died. The state hopes to improve
More than 50 foster kids are missing in Kansas at a given time. The state said it is making progress to fix the problem, but critics say it could do more.
TOPEKA, Kansas — Two Kansas foster runaways died in 2022. The body of one turned up in an empty lot in Kansas City, Kansas. The second stole a car and crashed into a semi truck near Parsons.
The deaths of those children prompted criticism of the Kansas Department for Children and Families, the agency ultimately responsible for kids tangled in the state’s foster system.
The agency still operates under the conditions of a lawsuit settlement to reduce the number of times foster children get shipped from home to home or get stuck overnight in offices of the private agencies hired to place them with families.
“There have been ongoing concerns, and now there have been growing concerns, about the lack of transparency and accountability, particularly with children spending the night in offices and runaways,” said state Sen. Molly Baumgardner, a Republican from Louisburg, when she heard about the death of the child in Parsons.
The lawmaker has called for the firing of DCF Secretary Laura Howard.
A federal report found that 7% of Kansas foster children went missing in a 30-month period, one of the highest rates in the nation — though state officials say that number is lower if the data is looked at in a different context.
Even by the state’s calculations, the runaway problem grew in recent years. In fiscal year 2015, 0.74% of all children in out-of-home placements were defined as runaways, according to state data. By fiscal year 2022, that number rose to 1.23%. The number of runaways hit 59 in fiscal year 2015 and topped off at 95 in fiscal year 2022.
The state has also lost 500 foster homes in the last few years, another issue concerning lawmakers.
Meanwhile, state officials say they’re making progress by working on the things that typically cause kids to run away from group homes or foster care.
The state created a 12-person special response team to work with kids who have run or are identified as likely to run. That team tries to build a relationship with and mentor them.
TFI Family Services Inc., a private foster care agency hired by the state, partnered with the University of Kansas to study why kids leave. Its study found that children leave placement because they need more supportive care, lack control over their situation, are trying to get away from a flawed system — like one with high caseworker turnover — or they miss their families.
Kansas tries to keep kids with relatives.
Just 28% of all foster care placements were in relatives’ homes in fiscal year 2010. That number now sits at 36%, or more than 2,000 kids in the most recent report. A relative's home, or kinship placements, keeps children with familiar family, friends, coaches or teachers.
Howard, the DCF chief, said that no matter how loving a foster family is, moving a child from the family they grew up with to a household of strangers is traumatic. Kinship placements are seen as a more comfortable transition because it keeps kids in their communities with support networks they’ve had throughout their lives.
Foster care agencies also see the benefits. They said that kids run to homes of people they call family, whatever their definition of family is. When that happens, those homes are checked to see if that could become a viable placement option for the child.
Kinship parents are often not expecting a new child, so DCF has rolled out training programs for those fill-in parents to feel less overwhelmed by a sudden change.
The agency also wants more money to increase the pay for those kinship parents, something requested in Gov. Laura Kelly’s proposed budget. Family and friends who take on foster kids currently get at least $11.55 a day. Licensed foster homes get $25.20 at a minimum. Howard said the proposed increase would get kinship families within 70% of the non-relative rate.
Kansas was also selected for a first-of-its-kind program that lets children play a larger role in picking their legal guardians. SOUL Family lets foster kids 16 and older pick up to two adults to be their legal, permanent family. Pending changes to state law, Kansas can be the first state in the nation to take that approach.
“We don’t shy away from innovation,” Howard said.
Creating welcoming homes
State Rep. Susan Ruiz, a Shawnee Democrat, has been a social worker for decades. She said children often fear foster care. One day they are living their lives, and the next, their things are thrown into a plastic bag and they are moved somewhere else.
“Why would you want to be cooperative?” Ruiz said. “Why would you not be angry about that?”
Creating welcoming environments could ease that anger and Ruiz said the state needs to pay attention to the particular needs of LGBTQ children. A foster family not accepting their gender identity or sexual orientation is reason enough for kids to run, multiple people told the Kansas News Service.
Kansas has no requirement that foster kids be placed in homes that accept their sexual or gender identity. But state Rep. Timothy Johnson, a Leavenworth Republican, says he doesn’t think this is that big of an issue.
“The families that I know are caring and loving, regardless of what your personal beliefs are,” he said.
Foster care agencies acknowledged children need to be in homes that accept them, but they stopped short of backing mandatory training on how to raise a gay or transgender kid.
Foster care agencies say they track which homes are supportive and do their best to steer appropriate placements that way. Kansas added new positions that focus on targeted recruiting of families to fill gaps in the system, which could be LGBTQ families or other areas of need.
Keeping kids in similar cultural backgrounds can play a role in welcoming kids. Everything from homes that like basketball or families without dogs are crucial.
Experts say a diverse array of foster homes is important because kids run for so many reasons.
Leecia Welch, deputy legal director with foster care advocacy group Children’s Rights, said kids could run away just to get their hair dyed and then come right back.
“If you don’t have choices,” she said, “you’re going to have a higher likelihood that you’re not going to have a fit and the young person is going to vote with their feet and get out of there.”
Drugs and mental health
Kansas was sued in 2019 for systemic problems and made promises to fix problems when settling the lawsuit. In September, a settlement agreement tracking the state’s progress found some progress — like increasing placement stability. But it also found delays in mental health services.
Kids can move from home to home, complicating a trip to the therapist. And 76% of the time, mental health care got delayed for other reasons.
The state did launch a therapeutic foster home system that takes higher needs kids and emphasizes a more hands-on approach, like nearly daily contact from specialists. The program started in July and the state has about four therapeutic homes six months into the program.
Howard with DCF said the effort is a work in progress.
Kansas has reworked reimbursement rates for community mental health centers to give them more money. That’s intended to give all Kansans access to mental health services.
Mental health struggles can also co-occur with substance abuse. Drug and alcohol use is one of the top reasons kids run away from homes overseen by private foster agency KVC, said Linda Bass, the president of KVC Kansas.
Kids could run to go find drugs, do drugs but intend on coming back. That puts them in dangerous situations, Bass said. There is only one inpatient facility for youth with substance abuse in the state.
“That means every family and child do not have a facility that’s in their community or that’s close for them to access,” she said.
Kansas has a heavily privatized foster care system. That means case management services, hiring of social workers and adoptions get outsourced to private companies.
Cornerstones of Care and TFI Family Services are keeping caseloads manageable, the settlement agreement tracking the data found. Both agencies said fewer than 5% of its caseworkers had more than 30 cases as of Dec. 2021. KVC Kansas said 24% of its caseworkers had more than 30 cases. For St. Francis Ministries, that number was 42%.
Inconsistencies in caseload reporting made it hard to confirm all caseload numbers were accurate, the lawsuit settlement said.
A November report from KVC said caseloads are at a healthy level and in compliance with state requirements.
Reducing caseloads lets caseworkers better connect with children, social workers, legislators and experts said. That connection allows children to be listened to, which is the most important thing states can do to reduce the number of runaway kids, said Jennifer Townsend, vice president of children and youth programs at FosterAdopt Connect.
“You can involve yourself before the issues become insurmountable … (before) someone’s either potentially running away or having to leave a placement,” she said.
Multiple people told the Kansas News Service that caseworkers have not been spared from labor shortages seen nationwide. The job is tough and the pay ranges can stretch from $30,000 to over $50,000. Caseworkers can make more, but it depends on experience, whether someone is licensed, what their degree is and if they supervise other employees. State agencies are offering bonuses to attract and retain staff.
Republican state Rep. Susan Concannon, chair of the Child Welfare and Foster Care committee, said she wants the state to insist on minimum pay levels for caseworkers.
“I would be very interested in looking at some way that we can have some impact on what the pay is,” she said.
Additional pay, she said, could attract more qualified social workers, but other lawmakers called for more proactive benefit packages to increase interest in the jobs.
Too many foster kids
A University of Kansas study estimated foster care caseloads can drop by 14% if more money was spent on food benefits for families. That has some Democrats clamoring for expanded programs and chipping away at the HOPE Act.
The HOPE Act severely tightened food stamp programs and, after it passed, the number of people getting food assistance dropped by over 50,000, research from nonprofit Kansas Appleseed found in 2020. The Kansas Legislature passed additional SNAP requirements earlier this year. Republicans say that will efficiently save taxpayer dollars and make families less dependent on the government.
Nationally, over 70% of children put into foster care land there because of neglect. That can be someone struggling to keep enough food in the refrigerator — something a stronger social safety net could prevent.
Attempts to boost social welfare benefits gained little traction in the Legislature and lawmakers said the Republican-controlled body isn’t interested in a more liberal approach to welfare programs.
Yet Kansas was one of the first in the nation to join the Family First Initiative. Family First lets states use federal tax dollars earmarked for foster care to proactively address issues to keep kids out of the system.
For foster care agency St. Francis, that allowed funding of a family-centered therapy program that finds kids who might soon enter foster care and provides intensive, in-home services. So far, 95% of the children in that program have avoided the system.
Since 2019, the number of Kansas kids in foster care has dropped by 1,000. DCF officials said Family First had a significant impact because almost 90% of families who used those services avoided the foster care system.
Matt Stephens, vice president of foster care homes at foster agency St. Francis, said states with more robust programs — food benefits, mental health care or drug treatment — often have fewer kids in care.
“Systems that invest in the community resourcing – it pays for itself for the prevention benefit versus (paying for) out of home care,” he said. “It also is a much more efficient use of taxpayer dollars.”
Most of the lawmakers, foster agencies and experts interviewed for this story had ideas that someone else never mentioned.
They include changing state law to require foster parents to report a child missing the second they know they are gone; making DCF do a deeper case review for every single child that goes missing; continue working on foster parent exit surveys to see why families quit; or put social workers on state benefits to make jobs more desirable.
Welch, with Children’s Rights, said the state just needs to keep listening.
“If you center the voice of young people, and listen to them and understand what it is that is driving them out of placement, and try to correct that,” she said, “that’s how you're going to fix the system.”
On second reference, this story misidentified the organization where Leecia Welch works. She's the deputy legal director for Children's Rights.
Blaise Mesa reports on criminal justice and social services for the Kansas News Service in Topeka. You can follow him on Twitter @Blaise_Mesa or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.
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