How DCF aims to find missing kids, takes on new lawsuit

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“Broken system.”

“Extreme housing disruption.”

These are words the non-profit Kansas Appleseed uses in a lawsuit against Kansas leaders and Department for Children and Families.

Kansas Appleseed is fighting for the rights of 10 foster care children it said the system has failed. Specifically, the lawsuit names these people as defendants in the complaint: Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer; Gina Meier-Hummel, who is DCF Secretary; Jeff Anderson, who is Kansas Department of Health and Environment Secretary; and Tim Keck, who is Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services Secretary.

INSIDE THE LAWSUIT

In the 68-page complaint, there are allegations of instability and neglect. 

“Foster kids undergo as much trauma… the PTSD for kids in foster care has been found to be as much as that for soldiers in battle,” said attorney Lori Burns-Bucklew.

A 13-year-old girl was allegedly raped in a child welfare agency office this year in Olathe. An 18-year-old was charged with rape and aggravated indecent liberties with a child under 14. Both teens were kept in the welfare office overnight due to a shortage in foster care beds.

In another case, a boy has been in foster care since he was seven years old. He was moved out-of-state for a possible adoption with a relative in Iowa, but the lawsuit claims DCF failed to complete steps for the adoption. The boy was returned in Kansas. He’s now 13 and has been diagnosed with several mental health disorders. He had been moved to more than 130 placements since he’s been in DCF care. The lawsuit says he was so desperate for a loving home that he ran away from one placement for several days.

Lawyers like Larry Rute and Burns-Bucklew said these children are among many the system has disservice. The children are moved too often, don’t get proper mental health assessments or services they need, they said.

“They just give up,” Burns-Bucklew said. “They don't think anybody cares about him so they don’t have any need to stay where there they have no control over their settings.”

“When you’re pulled out of that environment and moved night to night and moved night to night again, one location to the other, it’s extreme instability for that child,” Rute echoed. “It’s almost a state homelessness situation.”


SCRUTINY OVER DCF
DCF has faced scrutiny in recent years.

The welfare agency said it failed to meet 16 of 30 federal and state performance standards within this past year. According to an Associated Press report, about 4,200 children were placed into foster care last year in Kansas, with 3,800 leaving foster care during that time. At the end of June, nearly 7,600 children were in foster care in Kansas.

Secretary Meier-Hummel was hired to overhaul DCF. She replaced Phyllis Gilmore as secretary last December. Since then, the department has made several leadership and policy changes.

This month, a special task force made nearly two dozen recommendations to lawmakers, aimed at improving the state’s child welfare system. Priorities include hiring more child welfare workers, increase pay to staff and consolidating computer systems for efficiency. 

“The state created a shortage of beds,” said Senator and Governor-elect Laura Kelly, (D) Topeka, earlier this month, “by underfunding, essentially starving some of those facilities so that they could no longer operate.”

“I don’t think it’s a bipartisan issue anymore,” Kelly said.  “You can see from this task force that this is all Kansans coming together, recognizing that we are not doing right by our kids and families at this point.”

Kansas will boost its annual spending on foster care by $35 million under state DCF grants that have been awarded to five contractors. The grants run four years, starting on July 1. The state expects to spend $245 million on foster care during the fiscal year beginning on that date, according a recent AP report. Overall, it’s a 17 percent increase over the current fiscal year.

MISSING KIDS

Though DCF cannot comment on pending litigation, Daniel Klucas said there are challenges with the system. Klucas is the deputy secretary of administration and operations for DCF. He said there are many things the department is focused on – even before the special task force’s recommendations – that will help keep kids safe and keep the number for missing foster kids down.

Overall, Kansas’s numbers for missing people mirror the national average.

Last year, nearly 90,000 people were reported missing to the Federal Bureau of Investigation; close to 47 percent of those are people 21 and younger.

DCF said the number of runaways has gone down by 26.7 percent this year.

Then, in November, federal, state and local law enforcement agencies partnered together in a sweep to find 18 runaways. Children who were found in the sweep will now go through assessments, to find a safe and comfortable placement for them.

“There's a problem when kids run away,” Klucas said. “Yeah, whether they're our kids or kids that aren't in foster care, right? I mean. No one wants kids out there on the streets.”

Burns-Bucklew and Rute argue if DCF invested in programs, like extensive training for foster parents and adding to mental health services for children, the department would be able to prevent kids from running away – instead of reacting to runaways.

“When you ask why some kids run away,” Rute said, “They've given up they become depressed. They become anxious. They believe they see one social worker and then another and then another, and it becomes hopeless for them.”

The lawyers hope with a new governor and other lawmakers preparing to take office, there will be vast improvements for kids who were initially pulled from homes, where some were exposed to drugs, domestic violence or child abuse.

PREVENTING RUNAWAYS

Klucas said changes have come to the department in this past year, and he believes it will make vast improvements to the Kansas foster care system.

DCF has hired two people who solely work on finding missing kids – something the department says is rare for any state agency.


“They are doing just real grassroots kind of detective work looking for these kids just like anybody else would if a family had the funds to hire a special investigators, these investigators that we have, are doing the same types of things,” Klucas said. “And they’re working with law enforcement agencies, the KBI, the FBI, Health and Human Services. So they’re really getting out there, kind of beating the bushes, and looking for these kids. So, that’s really working.”

Also, DCF is testing the Youth Advocate Program in Kansas City, where it pairs chronic runaways with mentors.

“They really work with these kids talk to them, put someone in their corner,” Klucas said. “So this is what we're trying to stop is stop the recidivism of the runaways so that we can get them back to a foster care location to a family or wherever they're staying, and really keep them there with this program.”

Klucas said the response from foster care partners and social workers has been positive. DCF is in the process of hiring agents to expand the Youth Advocate Program to Wichita.