Beleaguered Kansas Child Welfare Hit with Class-Action Lawsuit

Kansas Department of Children and Families Secretary Gina Meier-Hummel with the state’s governor Jeff Colyer.

Kansas Development of Children and Families (DCF) has been hit with a class-action lawsuit that accuses the agency of  inappropriate practices when it comes to frequency of placements in foster care.

The lawsuit – brought on behalf of 10 specific foster youth by the National Center for Youth Law, Children’s Rights and Kansas Appleseed – is the latest challenge for a state that has been plagued by issues in the last few years that ultimately led to the resignation of DCF Secretary Phyllis Gilmore, who was replaced by Gina Meier-Hummel less than a year ago.

In the last year, Meier-Hummel has worked with Gov. Jeff Colyer (R) who will leave office in January, to address the issue of missing foster youth, homeless youth, and children sleeping in county offices. The lawsuit contends that these issues persist, children running away from foster homes for being treated poorly, sexual abuse in adoptive homes, multiple moves for children in care and even a 13-year-old girl who was raped in May at an Olathe child welfare office.

The suit names Colyer and officials responsible for the Kansas Department for Children and Families, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) and the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services (KDADS) as defendants in the suit.

“As Kansans, we should be ashamed and outraged that our own state government is harming our most vulnerable children this way,” said Benet Magnuson, executive director at Kansas Appleseed in a press release about the suit. “The problems have become too dangerous and too entrenched that we believe this lawsuit is necessary to protect our children.”

Since taking over DCF, Meier-Hummel has implemented a number of changes, including increasing social worker recruitment efforts, introducing an online dashboard to monitor the child welfare reform process, and gathering public input on child welfare contracts.

But the lawsuit contends that many DCF children are experiencing a high rate of placements once they enter foster care.  According to reporting by Kansas City radio station KCUR, “Kansas moved kids an average of 8.6 times per 1,000 days, more than double the federal standard, and 30 percent more times than its 2016 average of 6.6 moves.”

The state’s contracts with private operators are drawing additional heat. One of DCF’s choices for a new contract for family preservation services – Eckerd Connects, a Florida-based nonprofit, has had its own slew of issues. In recent months, Florida has threatened to revoke Eckerd’s contract because of similar issues with youth safety.

“Oh, brother,” said House Majority Leader Don Hineman, (R), in a Kansas City Star article about the concerns about the contracts. “I’m disappointed to hear that. Full vetting and due diligence should be done before any private contractor is awarded a grant. I know that can be time-consuming and inefficient, but it’s of paramount importance, in my opinion.”

Earlier this month, citing a growing number of homeless youth in the state, DCF announced plans to replicate a program that has shown promise in the Kansas City area.

Typically, homeless youth are identified by their public school. The federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act requires school districts to support homeless youth so they can remain in school.

Barry Feaker, executive director of the Topeka Rescue Mission that’s partnering with Kansas DCF to introduce Vital Impact, a program to bring together community supports and agencies to help families. Photo courtesy of Kansas DCF

DCF has been working to support homeless families so children can have more stability, Forrest said. The state launched Vital Impact, a program to bring together community supports and agencies to help families in the Kansas City area a few years ago.

“These families intersect with the child welfare community because they are at-risk, often living relatively unstable lives, bouncing from place-to-place each night,” said Taylor Forrest, director of communications at DCF, in an email to The Chronicle of Social Change. “In the past four years, Vital Impact has significantly decreased the number of homeless youth. DCF hopes to replicate this collaborative network approach to services across the state.”

DCF hosted a call to action meeting in early November to address the issue, at which it announced the expansion of that program to other counties in the state, including in the state’s more populous communities for Wichita and Topeka, with the hopes of remedying the youth homelessness problem in those areas. Shawnee County, where Topeka is, currently has a youth homeless population of 554.

“In Wyandotte County, Kansas City, they began to approach this a number of years ago through what’s called collective impact… what they were able to do in about four years was to reduce the number of children who are homeless by 50 percent,” said Barry Feaker, executive director of the Topeka Rescue Mission that’s partnering with DCF in the program’s expansion.

A new report on the Kansas child welfare system is due to the legislature early next year. The responsibility for cleaning up the problems will land on the new Kansas-governor Laura Kelly (D), who was elected to the position by beating current Secretary of State Kris Kobach who had ousted Colyer in the primary election. Kelly will have the right to appoint a new DCF secretary when she moves into the position.

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Kim Phagan-Hansel
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