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A Kansas foster care agency says kids aren't sleeping in offices anymore, but they aren't in homes

A photo of a Cornerstones of Care office
Blaise Mesa
Kansas News Service
Cornerstones of Care said over email that its shelter is a better alternative to office stays.

Cornerstones of Care has had 17 kids sleep in a new shelter. The agency says it's an improvement over an office stay, but it's at a campus that critics call "grim.”

TOPEKA, Kansas — Foster care agency Cornerstones of Care hasn’t had a child sleep in one of its Kansas offices since January.

On its surface, it’s a major victory for the foster care provider. An audit of the state’s foster care system found that office stays increased 54% between 2021 and 2022. Eliminating office stays is also a key goal of a lawsuit settlement, and failing to do so could get Kansas brought back to court.

But advocates and lawmakers say this victory is hollow because instead of sleeping in an office, kids are spending nights in a shelter at Cornerstones' Ozanam campus in Kansas City, Missouri. That campus has been described by advocacy group Kansas Appleseed as “pretty grim, very institutional, not at all home-like and cold.”

Cornerstones disagrees, and said over email that the shelter has playgrounds, libraries and a chapel.

“Our solution is far better than having youth sleep in offices,” said Jon Ratliff, director of marketing and communications for the foster care agency.

Kids end up sleeping in offices because staff can’t find any other place to stay. That could mean there are no relatives, no foster homes or no other options available. State Sen. Molly Baumgardner, a Louisburg Republican, said a lack of services for kids and a drop in foster homes have made this problem worse.

“Every movement is disruptive and traumatic for the child,” Baumgardner said. “That’s what we have heard from children of all ages.”

Between January and June of this year, 17 kids spent 26 nights at the shelter. In 2022, Cornerstones had 30 kids spend 109 days in the office.

Cornerstones of Care didn’t respond to questions about new investments it made to find children a suitable home, but the agency has told lawmakers about their plans.

Rachel Spaethe, executive director of Kansas programs and services, told lawmakers the agency created a family-finding unit that looks for suitable homes. That was coupled with development of the placement-finding department.

“We’re connecting youth with the placements prior to the move, so that the youth have a chance to talk to the placement before going,” she said.

She also did acknowledge that the drop in office stays did increase one-night placements.

“That’s a result,” she said. “While they’re not in the office, they may be in a one-night placement. And we’ve got to fix that.”

Cornerstones stopped bringing children to the office, Spaethe said. Kids could have a close bond with a caseworker, and if that child is taken back to the office, they might not want to leave because it’s hard “to go to a home that they don’t know.”

Baumgardner wasn’t aware that a shelter at Ozanam had been taking in kids for nightly stays.

“It would be my assumption if kids are not spending nights in offices that yes, they are being placed in a foster home, not in an overnight group home,” she said.

There could be valid reasons for the short placements at the Ozanam campus, though. Some facilities offer additional services to kids, which could mean sending a child to a specialized shelter is more beneficial than sending a child to an unprepared foster family.

Cornerstones didn’t answer questions about whether Ozanam offers any increased support. It also didn’t provide photos or allow a tour of the facility when asked.

Foster care agencies have long said that Kansas has too many foster kids for a state its size, which can push resources to the limit. Kansas, Arkansas and Mississippi all have a population around 3 million people. Kansas has around 6,000 foster children while Arkansas and Mississippi have less than 4,300 each.

Kansas has also lost hundreds of foster families in recent years. More kids and fewer homes is compounded by a lack of services to help children in care, said Mike Fonkert, deputy director of Kansas Appleseed, a group that advocates for foster care legislation in the Statehouse.

Keeping kids in the same home is important, he said, and audits of foster care found that Kansas is moving children around more often, to about seven placements every 1,000 days.

There are a handful of proposed fixes to reduce nightly placements. The state could increase support for families and children so kids' needs are adequately met — something the state is trying. Foster care agencies also need to recruit more parents, advocates said. That could involve an “apology tour” where agencies contact families who didn’t renew their license and try to bring them back.

“They're a big problem,” Fonkert said. “The one night placements are just a bandaid fix … it’s a bandaid over a festering wound.”

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.