Abused and neglected children are again sleeping overnight in the offices of Kansas foster care contractors because homes cannot be found for them quickly enough.
Since January, when Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly took office, more than 70 children have been kept overnight in the offices of the two nonprofit agencies providing foster care services. Her Republican predecessor's administration kept children from sleeping in offices during its final months after threatening publicly to fine contractors — a threat Kelly's administration has dropped.
The state Department for Children and Families provided statistics in response to questions from The Associated Press after it received a tip that the practice had returned. Kelly, legislators and child welfare advocates have repeatedly cited the practice as a sign of serious problems in the child welfare system since it came to light in 2017.
"We need to build capacity to make sure that we're able to find stable placements with family or with licensed foster homes or in the right facility for every youth," DCF Deputy Secretary Tanya Keys said during an interview. "So, one is too many."
Kelly, a state senator before being elected governor last year, was a vocal critic of fiscal and social services policies under former Republican Govs. Sam Brownback and Jeff Colyer. She said during her campaign last year that fixing the troubled child welfare system was a top priority and told The AP in February, "These kids are ultimately in my charge."
"She is aware of the problem," spokeswoman Ashely All said, adding that the governor receives frequent briefings on child welfare issues. "She is working with the (DCF) secretary to address it quickly."
The department's statistics showed that four children were kept overnight in the offices of its two foster care contractors, KVC Health Systems and Saint Francis Ministries, in January and February. The figure jumped to 12 in March and 35 in April and was 16 for the first 11 days of May.
The department said no children were kept overnight in contractors' offices in October, November and December 2018. Colyer, who became governor when Brownback resigned to take an U.S. ambassador's post in January 2018, cited it as an accomplishment for his short administration as he left office.
DCF officials said children began staying overnight in offices again partly because bad winter weather made it less safe to move them. Keys said some children have behavioral problems that make it problematic to put them with other children, so that it's harder to find homes for them. Others simply have been taken into state custody late in the day, she said.
Also, officials said, the number tends to rise in April and May. Saint Francis Ministries spokeswoman Morgan Rothenberger said there's also typically a rise in the number of children entering foster care, partly because the school year is nearing its end and teachers worry about students' welfare over the summer.
"We already struggle with having enough foster homes," she said. "It becomes challenging."
The return to having foster children stay overnight in offices has received little public attention since Kelly became governor.
"It doesn't matter if there's a Republican in office or if there is a Democrat in office," said state Sen. Richard Hilderbrand, a Republican from southeast Kansas who's been monitoring child welfare statistics for weeks. "The kids are the kids. That doesn't change, and that's who we're supposed to take care of."
The number of foster children sleeping in offices this spring is less than the 85 in April 2018 and 69 in May 2018. The number dropped sharply after that, to four in July 2018.
"We are making progress, but we continue to work on long-term solutions," All said, citing those numbers. "This continues to be a priority for the governor."
The problem received fresh attention in September 2018, when the number rose to 14 and an 18-year-old man was criminally charged with sexually assaulting a 13-year-old girl who had stayed overnight in a contractor's suburban Kansas City office months before. Kelly called the case a "nightmare."
Colyer's DCF secretary, Gina Meier-Hummel, announced plans in September 2018 to fine contractors if foster children slept overnight in their offices, just before the number fell to zero for three months.
Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, called on Kelly's administration to reinstate fines for contractors if children stay overnight in their offices, which Wagle called "unacceptable."
"It is time the governor takes action," Wagle said.
DCF's current spokesman, Mike Deines, said the agency is forgoing fines to concentrate on "the underlying cause."
Keys said the department is working to recruit new foster parents to add to the state's 2,000 or so licensed foster homes and to find relatives for children more quickly. The state had about 7,600 children in its foster care system in April — 46 percent more than 10 years ago.
"We don't have any evidence that there were any fines levied," Deines said.
The practice came to light during a September 2017 meeting of a task force created by the Legislature to investigate problems in the child welfare system. Kelly said at the time that it had probably been happening for some time and that she'd rather have children safe in caseworkers' offices than "dumped off somewhere."
"It will always be an issue if we don't keep on top of it," Hilderbrand said.