Kansas Department for Children and Families

LAWRENCE, Kansas — The state of Kansas has settled a class-action lawsuit with attorneys who represent Kansas foster children.

Foster parent Mitzi Monson feels lucky she can stay at home.

Yet since the coronavirus closed schools, Monson has had few breaks from the three children in her care. At least extra money from the state’s foster care agency, awarded since the start of the pandemic, helps pay for groceries.

TOPEKA, Kansas — The same kids who end up in trouble with the law often come from families in disarray.

Those families, in turn, regularly turn to the state for food assistance, foster care or mental health care.

Gov. Laura Kelly announced Wednesday a plan to form a singular agency — the Kansas Department of Human Services — that would absorb social welfare programs currently handled by three agencies.

The new agency would have a massive statewide presence, employing 6,000 workers, and oversee foster care, mental health services, four state hospitals and the juvenile justice complex. 

Holes punched in walls. Car headlights smashed. Windows broken. Weapons, threats, sexual comments. Children who can’t live with other children. Children whom foster parents won’t take in. Children who aren’t able to get the mental health care they desperately need.

Kansas foster care contractors and parents say all of these situations have become more common — and more risky — since 2017, when the state made sweeping changes to the juvenile justice system. The changes, they say, removed options for dealing with foster children who have high needs and violent behaviors.

Updated Nov. 15 with statement from the governor: Attorneys for Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly have asked a federal court to remove her from a class-action lawsuit over the state’s troubled foster care program, arguing that she doesn’t actually oversee the system.

The move comes as parents and advocates say that the system continues to traumatize the thousands of children in its care.

From cries of heartbreak to a call for the prosecution of men who pay for sex with girls, Kansas lawmakers said the story of Hope Zeferjohn, a teen victim of sex-trafficking who was prosecuted for sex crimes, focuses a harsh light on a state system that is supposed to protect children.

At first, they wanted to save her.

Then, after she fled the Kansas foster care system at age 16 and fell victim to the commercial sex trade, social workers told her she was going to prison forever.

"When I went into foster care and they wanted to take me away from my family, I ran," she said. "I ran away, and that's how I really started to get into all of this trouble. After I ran away, that's when they started treating me like, 'Oh, you're a suspect and you're not innocent.'

Evan Pflugradt / KMUW/File photo

The president of the company that formerly ran a literacy program for Kansas' public elementary schools alleged Monday that the state canceled the multimillion-dollar grant in "retaliation" for the firm's opposition to major changes state officials were seeking.

The state of Kansas is canceling a contract that administered an elementary-school reading program because of what state officials call inappropriate spending on travel and salaries. 

The contractor disputes any mishandling of the money, which in recent years amounted to nearly $10 million routed from a program meant to serve needy families. 

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