A University of Kansas study supports the suspicions of lawmakers and advocates who believe there’s a link between additional restrictions on welfare benefits and an increase in foster care cases.
The researchers say their initial findings show that while Kansas was reducing the amount of time families could receive cash assistance through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, program and increasing the requirements they needed to meet for that assistance, the number of child abuse and neglect cases went up. Abuse and neglect are the leading reasons why Kansas kids enter foster care.
“It’s remarkable. There is a mirror image,” said Donna Ginther, a KU economist and one of the study researchers. “As the Kansas TANF caseloads drop, the number of reports of abuse and neglect go up. And you see a similar relationship for foster care placements.”
The number of Kansas families receiving TANF has dropped from 14,321 in 2011 to 4,563 in March 2017.
Since Gov. Sam Brownback took office in 2011, lifetime limits for TANF recipients have been reduced three times:
- In 2011, from 60 months to 48 months.
- In 2015 as part of the HOPE Act, to 36 months.
- In 2016 as part of the HOPE Act 2.0, to 24 months with a chance to get a hardship extension of up to a year.
The most recent change puts the Kansas lifetime TANF limit among the lowest in the nation.
While TANF caseloads decreased, the KU researchers noted a jump in the number of TANF applications that were denied beginning in 2011.
Gina Meier-Hummel, newly appointed secretary of the Kansas Department for Children and Families, addressed the study when its impending release came up during a child welfare task force meeting last week. She said the agency’s numbers don’t signal a relationship between the more restrictive welfare policies and the increase in foster care cases.
“We’re going to continue to have conversations about the policies and make sure we’ve got everything right,” she said. “We obviously think we have the policy right, but we’ll continue to look at that.”
Sandra Kimmons, DCF director of economic and employment services, said the agency’s records from 2010 to 2016 indicate a steady percentage of families who left TANF and saw their kids enter foster care in the next 12 months.
That correlation shows up in DCF's data though the actual number of kids entering foster care after their families left the cash assistance program dropped by almost half.
Michelle Johnson-Motoyama, a professor of social welfare at KU and another of the study’s researchers, said the KU research differed from the data DCF cites in two major ways: KU looked at the number of children who entered foster care within 24 months of their families losing TANF benefits, as opposed to 12 months in the DCF data, and the KU researchers looked not only at families who lost TANF but also at families who applied for TANF benefits and were denied.
For Rep. Linda Gallagher, a Lenexa Republican and a member of the child welfare task force, the preliminary results from KU offer evidence that she can take back to the Legislature as it considers improvements to the state's struggling foster care system. She said she intends to bring the KU researchers to testify before the task force and hopes to use the study’s findings to begin reversing some of the HOPE Act 2.0 provisions.
“I didn’t vote for the HOPE Act in the first place, so I welcome anything we can do to roll back aspects of it,” Gallagher said.
However, even with more moderates elected to the Legislature since HOPE 2.0 was approved in 2016, Gallagher said it will likely be an incremental process. She’d like to start by reducing the work requirements for women after they give birth, but ultimately hopes to see a lifting of the two-year lifetime limit.
“We’re going to have to be strategic in going for change that is achievable,” Gallagher said.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated with additional information from DCF about the TANF and foster care trends. It was previously updated to clarify how the KU research differs from the DCF data.
Madeline Fox is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio, KCUR and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach her on Twitter @maddycfox.