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Audits find Kansas foster kids still sleep in state offices and don't get enough mental health care

DCF Secretary Laura Howard talks to state lawmakers
Blaise Mesa
Kansas News Service
Department for Children and Families Secretary Laura Howard speaking to lawmakers.

Audits of the Kansas foster care system raise concerns about mental health access, unreliable data and foster kids moving between homes too often.

TOPEKA, Kansas — Two separate audits of the Kansas foster care system have found troubling trends in child welfare.

A federal review found the state struggles to ensure the safety of children and can’t meet the needs of every foster kid. A separate audit as part of a lawsuit settlement found that children still sleep in foster care contractor offices some nights and that kids bounce around between homes too often.

“Overall, the state’s performance in (calendar year) 2022 in meeting the requirements of the settlement agreement failed to meet expectations,” one report said.

Both reports raised concerns about mental health services and inconsistent communication and sharing of data between foster care agencies. It’s another setback for a foster care system that has struggled to address these issues for years, despite attempts from multiple state agencies.

Kansas was sued in 2018, and that lawsuit alleged kids moved around so much they were essentially homeless. The state settled the court case and agreed to improve on a handful of metrics, like improving health screenings and limiting how often children move to new homes.

The state has 14 goals it needs to reach to complete the terms of the settlement. The report said it achieved only four goals, though two are in progress and two couldn’t be calculated due to data issues.

The other report prepared by the Children’s Bureau, a federal agency, tracked seven outcomes related to safety, the outcome of a case and well-being of the child. That report said Kansas was in “substantial conformity” with none of them. That report had a smaller sample size and looked at foster care services in Brown, Crawford, and Sedgwick counties.

Kids in offices

The number of kids spending the night in an office increased by 54% when compared to 2021. A total of 85 kids spent 257 total nights in offices in 2022.

Kids end up in offices if they have nowhere else to go. That could mean moving through a few foster homes where families lack the support to help the children. It might also mean having trouble staying in congregate care settings, like a psychiatric hospital. After exhausting placement options, they could end up in an office.

“That was the most urgent issue,” said Teresa Woody, litigation director for Kansas Appleseed, one of the groups that sued the state in 2018. “Frankly, once kids are in the system, it’s still very bad.”

She said a lack of services is contributing to these problems, which makes it harder to find children stable placements.

The state must have fewer than 6 placement moves per child every 1,000 days to comply with the lawsuit. The end goal is fewer than 4.4 moves. That means foster kids, on average, can not live in more than 6 different homes in any 1,000 day stretch in the child welfare system.

In 2021, Kansas averaged 5.84 moves per 1,000. In 2022, that number rose to 7.29 moves per 1,000.

Woody said the state is just outsourcing its problem. Officials see foster parents as the solution and place kinds in the homes without giving the parents enough support, she said. Those parents soon become overwhelmed.

“You just kind of think, well, they'll take care of it,” she said. “That’s the problem. We can't outsource the problem.”

Kansas lost hundreds of foster parents in the past few years and created a survey of former families to see why they didn’t renew their license. Almost half of the respondents said the state’s private foster care agencies didn’t help parents enough.

The federal report also said the state “is not demonstrating the ability to individualize services to meet the unique needs of children and families.” Rural areas usually lack services and urban areas often have waitlists.

Mental health needs

Both reports found the state needs more mental health care services.

The federal report found that kids got adequate mental and physical health help 52% of the time. The lawsuit settlement said adequate mental health care was available 70% of the time.

The federal review and lawsuit settlement had different sample sizes and that could have led to different percentages. But the state also has a poor data tracking system.

Some foster care agencies still track reports on paper and scan them into databases. Others have different systems. That makes it hard to get an accurate number.

“Would I bet my house on the accuracy of these statistics? Probably not,” said Mike Fonkert, Deputy Director for Kansas Appleseed.

Regardless of the percentage, the lack of access to mental health care is a serious issue. Only 43% of kids had a timely screening for mental health and trauma.

Fonkert said there has been some improvement in mental health care access, but the state is still struggling to reach its goals.

Kansas has been trying to address this issue. It’s increasing support for community mental health centers with the hope that a new funding model will increase services. But finding staff has been a challenge.

That state also has therapeutic foster homes, which provide additional support to families so they can take on higher needs kids. But less than a dozen exist.

“That's all great, and we need to continue to invest in that,” Fonkert said. “But this lawsuit is years old, and the problems of foster care are decades and decades old.”

Mental health wasn’t the only type of care in short supply. The federal report said there wasn’t enough domestic violence, substance use, disability and behavioral health services for youth. Children’s dental appointments also weren’t regularly scheduled.

A bar graph from the federal audit. Children were maintained safely in their homes 49% of the time. Services to protect children in the home and prevent removal or re-entry in to foster care were given 63% of the time. And risk and safety assessment and managment was given 51% of the time.
Charts from the federal audit

Safety of children

The federal report found that children were safely maintained in their homes only 49% of the time and just 69% of child abuse reports were investigated in a timely matter.

Maltreatment and recurring maltreatment when in foster care has improved over the last three years, however.


The federal review said the initial training and ongoing training programs for staff needed to be improved, but it did say training for foster families is a strength.

“It was clear children and families in different areas experience markedly different systems and practices,” the report said, pointing to “different variations and inconsistencies (that) revealed fractures in data, communication, assessments and service delivery.”

The state even lacks a consistent monitoring system to see if child welfare staff are completing their mandatory training requirements.

Kansas has one of the most privatized foster care systems in the country, and it relies on multiple nonprofits to provide prevention work, adoptions and case management services. That means training programs at one contractor are different from another.

Caseloads are also high for current staff. At KVC Kansas and St. Francis Ministries, the larger foster care agencies, 25% and 29% of its employees carry more than 30 cases.

Rachel Marsh, CEO of the Children’s Alliance of Kansas, said high caseloads have been a problem for years.

Upcoming agreements for case management services in Kansas will require agencies to keep caseloads reasonable. Marsh said that should help, but the state needs to have serious conversations about finding a solution.

“We can have as many reports as we want telling us where the problems are, the solutions are where we need to be focused,” she said.

Marsh did say that multiple different state agencies are working together to find solutions, something she hasn’t seen during her time in child welfare.

Where Kansas succeeded

Kansas did show improvement in some metrics

Last year, more kids left foster care when compared to kids who entered the system, and the number of overall children in state custody has dropped by around 1,500 since 2020.

Very few foster or kinship homes were over licensed capacity and the state was able to report data on the Family Mobile Response Crisis Helpline.

“My administration continues to make progress in protecting Kansas kids in the foster care system and repairing the state’s child welfare system,” said Democratic Governor Laura Kelly in a press release. “The latest report shows we continue to ensure kids are in stable placements and are improving how many foster youth receive necessary mental health screenings and timely access to services. But this report also makes clear that, in spite of all of our efforts, there’s much more work to be done.”

Blaise Mesa reports on criminal justice and social services for the Kansas News Service in Topeka. You can email him at blaise@kcur.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. 

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Blaise Mesa is based in Topeka, where he covers the Legislature and state government for the Kansas City Beacon. He previously covered social services and criminal justice for the Kansas News Service.