Kansas Foster Parents Say Support System Vital: ‘You Do The Best You Can’
Editor’s note: Kansas privatized its foster care system in 1997, after a lawsuit revealed widespread problems. Twenty years later, the number of Kansas children in foster care has shot up — by a third in just the last five years — and lawmakers are debating whether the system once again needs serious changes. The Kansas News Service investigated problems in the system and possible solutions. This is the fourth story in a series
With a record number of children in state custody — more than 7,000 at the end of March — Kansas officials have made recruiting and retaining foster parents a priority.
Speaking at a recent Statehouse event, Gov. Sam Brownback said Kansas should reverse its current situation and have foster parents waiting to be assigned children.
“This is doable. We just need people to step up,” he said. “Listen to your heart. Don’t block it.”
But foster parents say it takes more than good intentions to care for children in state custody, especially those who have special needs or behavior issues.
Jennifer Johnson said she and her husband started fostering teenage boys with special needs about six years ago at their Topeka home. They chose that group because she works as a high school special education teacher and because many families don’t want to take teens, she said.
“I’m comfortable with that age group, and a lot of people are not,” she said.
They had access to individual therapy, for the children, and family therapy, so she and her husband could learn how to encourage each child toward better behavior, Johnson said. They also could use attendant care for some of the children, so someone could watch a child if they had to be elsewhere, she said.
Some of the placements didn’t work, even with the supports. Several boys had to leave after they physically assaulted her or her husband, Johnson said.
In January they decided to stop fostering teens with special needs after one boy attacked a younger child who was visiting, she said. They currently foster four teens without special needs.
At first, Johnson said it felt like they had failed, because they viewed disruption of a child’s placement like divorce — something they never intended to do. But sometimes, they couldn’t keep a child in their home because of the risk to their family, she said.
“You take the kids where they’re at. You do the best you can,” she said. “You take care of your marriage and your family first while you’re helping the kids.”
‘Multiple layers of issues’
Julie Lane of Olathe, who serves as executive director of the Kansas Foster and Adoptive Parent Association, became a foster parent 11 years ago. Foster children now tend to have more mental health and substance use issues, she said.
Foster parents need education and support to deal with those conditions, she said, and have to contend with difficulty getting services following years of funding cuts to mental health.
“We’re seeing kids with a lot more severe issues and lot more multiple layers of issues,” she said.
Related story: As Kansas foster care system sets records, advocates call for more family services
Melissa Mendez, of Shawnee, told the House Children and Seniors Committee earlier this year that she feels “blessed” to be a foster parent but could use more help meeting children’s needs. She has fostered 11 children in less than three years, including three who currently live with her family.
Perhaps the most serious problem is when foster parents can’t get accurate information about a child’s history, Mendez said. For example, a caseworker told her a child had only one incident of physical aggression, but the child actually had serious mental health issues and violent behaviors and eventually was sent to a psychiatric facility, she said.
“He pulled my hair, punched me, bit me,” she said. “We were not equipped to provide for him. Because we were provided incorrect information, he had another loss in his life.”
“We’re seeing kids with a lot more severe issues and lot more multiple layers of issues.”
Representatives for the two contractors that administer the Kansas foster care system, Saint Francis Community Services and KVC Kansas, say they provide extensive supports for foster parents. Kansas privatized its foster care system in 1997, with the Kansas Department for Children and Families overseeing the contractors.
Children in the foster care system get health insurance through KanCare, the state’s privately managed Medicaid system. Foster parents typically get a stipend of about $20 per day for a child’s needs. Some also qualify for help paying for child care. Benefits are less generous for family members who take in foster children, however.
Both contractors also assign a caseworker to conduct monthly visits with each foster family, answer questions and assist in emergencies.
Related story: To keep foster care caseworkers, Kansas adjusts training, pay — but is it enough?
Jenny Kutz, spokeswoman for KVC Kansas, said the organization regularly collects feedback from foster parents about better ways to assist them. KVC Kansas offers short-term respite care, help with back-to-school supplies and workshops in person, by phone and online.
Patrice Classen, director of the Saint Francis foster home program, said it also offers monthly training workshops that cover topics like handling children’s challenging behaviors, working with birth parents and addressing trauma. Saint Francis also provides family support groups and offer resources online and in print, she said.
The organization would like to offer more breaks for foster parents, Classen said, but a shortage of foster parents makes it difficult to find someone to take children for a night or weekend. Generally, parents get respite care for family emergencies or short trips out of town, she said.
“That’s one of the (services) we could use more of,” she said.
Mendez, of Shawnee, said child care remains a challenge for foster parents who work. The state’s payments for day care are low, she said, so foster parents who work have to make up the difference. Last-minute appointments also sometimes interfere with the family’s plans.
“Foster parents do have lives outside of foster parenting,” she said. “There are times when I don’t feel valued.”
Finding the right fit
Other foster parents, however, say they receive all the support they need. Denise J. Shellman, of Wichita, said the caseworkers for the two brothers in her care keep her up-to-date on any developments in their cases and typically return text messages within 10 minutes if she has a question. They also have been flexible in changing plans, she said.
For example, the older brother, who is 5, initially was placed in a different home, and his caseworker intended to gradually integrate him with the Shellmans over the summer, she said. His visits went well, and the caseworker agreed to move up his integration to May after Shellman requested it.
“I actually look forward to when (the caseworkers) come over,” she said. “I’ve heard a lot of horror stories — a lot of them — but I think it has a lot to do with communicating with your social workers.”
Placing children in the right home is key, Shellman said. The younger brother, age 4, had behavioral problems in his first foster home but adjusted well to a slower pace in her home, she said.
“He just needed quiet, slow downtime,” she said.
Related story: Navigating Kansas foster care system can be a challenge for parents
About a third of children in the Kansas foster care system are in kinship placements, where relatives or close family friends care for children removed from their homes without going through the full licensing process. They don’t always receive the same level of financial support that licensed foster homes do.
Melanie Craig, of Salina, is caring for three grandsons — ages 1, 2 and 9 — as part of a kinship foster care placement. She and her husband wouldn’t want the boys placed with a family they don’t know, she said, but they have struggled to provide for them.
Craig quit her part-time job to care for the boys because they don’t qualify for child care assistance, she said, and they have occasionally turned to the Salvation Army for food and to other charities for diapers. The $150 one-time clothing allowance for all three boys and $349 in cash assistance each month haven’t covered the cost of food and the boys’ other needs, she said.
“Everything adds up,” she said. “It’s crazy. I’m really frustrated with the system.”
Craig said she could use a little extra help. She had to seek out a community organization that offered a few hours of free child care each week so she could take care of errands, and she and the boys’ mother have had to arrange visits on their own.
Saint Francis didn’t know the boys were going on overnight visits with their parents, because the caseworker forgot to record approving them before she went on medical leave, she said.
“The left-hand doesn’t talk to the right hand or the foot, so they’re all kicking each other and hitting each other constantly,” she said.
Additional licensing rules
Despite the emphasis on finding more foster homes, DCF added steps to the licensing process after a July 2016 Legislative Post Audit report recommended the state pay more attention to family finances and the backgrounds of other people living in a foster home.
Read the July 2016 Post Audit report.
DCF reports about 2,800 licensed foster homes statewide, not counting kinship placements.
Under the new rules, anyone older than 10 in a foster home has to be fingerprinted and the family has to provide information about income and budget to show that another child can be supported.
Some families had concerns about the new rules, Classen of Saint Francis said, but those have tapered off.
Both contractors said they offer potential foster parents assistance with completing the licensing process, which can take six months or longer. As part of the process, parents have to complete 30 hours of training.
Not everyone completes the process, but that can be a good thing, said Johnson, the Topeka foster mother. If parents decide fostering isn’t for them, it prevents children from being placed in a home that isn’t prepared for their needs, she said.
“Our job is to get kids ready to go home or to be adults,” she said. “It’s not like you’re getting a puppy from the pound.”
Getting parents through the licensing process isn’t enough, however. Lane’s organization is working with KVC to arrange additional respite care for foster parents of difficult children, but they can’t offer it to everyone because of a shortage of workers and volunteers.
Foster parents are particularly vulnerable with their first few foster children, Lane said, and some surrender their licenses after a bad first placement.
“It really is an on-the-job learning experience,” she said. “I think we have some people jumping ship faster than we used to.”
Meg Wingerter is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio and KMUW covering health, education and politics. You can reach her on Twitter @MegWingerter.