Lawsuit: Kansas Agrees to Ambitious Foster Care Reforms

Kansas DCFKansas has agreed to a slate of dramatic changes to its child welfare system aimed at ending housing and mental health failures that destabilize youth in foster care.

Child advocates who brought the civil rights lawsuit in 2018 said it was past time to end what they called “state-sanctioned homelessness.” They said this settlement is a victory for the more than 7,000 children in the care of the state and any children who have yet to enter the system.

“The state is on the hook,”said Kansas City attorney Lori Burns-Bucklew, a child welfare law expert, in a statement accompanying the announcement of the settlement. “We now have enforceable, measurable reforms in place that will put an end to the destructive practices that have done so much harm to kids who depend on the system for their safety and well-being.”

The settlement aims to bring about fundamental changes to a child welfare system that has long been in crisis, the advocates said. 

Among the major complaints cited against the state was the staggeringly high number of youth who went missing from care and the high frequency of placement changes for some kids. One child, for example, was moved 130 times in eight years, depriving him of consistent treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.

“When we began speaking with Kansas youth, families and advocates about their experiences with the foster care system, we were shocked by the intensity of the housing instability they described, said Leecia Welch, senior director of legal advocacy and child welfare at the National Center for Youth Law.

“We learned that youth were regularly being dropped off at a new foster home night after night without being offered so much as a warm meal or a shower before being picked up the next morning, and that it was not uncommon for a young person to repeat this grueling experience hundreds of times.”

“The settlement agreement affirms our commitment to Kansas children by continuing efforts to build an effective child welfare system,” said Laura Howard, secretary of the Kansas departments for Children and Families and Aging and Disability Services. “The work we agreed to complete to resolve this lawsuit began a year and a half ago when I stepped into my role as secretary and will continue to be our primary focus.” 

The suit was filed before Howard was named secretary of DCF, and she said the state has been working on fixing the problems during her entire tenure. She is, she said, “comfortable” that the state can live up to the ambitious terms of the settlement.

The settlement requires a broad range of structural changes and measurable outcomes, all directed to dramatically improve housing stability and mental health supports for children in DCF care. Kansas must entirely end the use of offices or hotels to house youth in care, as well as the practice of “night-to-night” placements, and must develop a better system to provide crisis intervention. 

The five measurable outcome improvements for children include:

  • Achieving a low average rate of placement (housing) moves, ultimately 4.4 moves or less per 1000 days in care
  • Addressing mental health and behavioral health treatment needs for at least 90% of cases
  • Ensuring the current placement is stable for at least 90% of cases
  • Limiting placement changes to one move over 12 months for at least 90% of cases
  • Providing an initial mental health and trauma screen within 30 days of entering state care for at least 90% of cases.

All of these agreed-upon benchmarks are phased in over time. When state agencies “hit” the final target outcome after phasing it in, they must “hold” it for another 12 months in order to exit court oversight.

The settlement is binding whether performance is by the state agencies or any providers under contracts or other agreements with the state, a notable provision in a state that relies heavily on private providers to carry out most of its foster care services. And the obligations of the settlement will become a part of all contracts.

The settlement appoints Judith Meltzer and the Center for the Study of Social Policy, a highly respected child welfare policy group, to independently validate the state’s performance. CSSP recently launched the upEND Campaign that has a goal of ending the use of foster care removals entirely.

The settlement also requires a new independent advisory group, heavy on stakeholders outside of state agencies, such as providers, parents and youth. The group can make public recommendations for change and the state agencies must respond in writing to all of them.

The plaintiffs in M.B. v Howard, which was filed November 16, 2018 in the United States District Court, District of Kansas, include Children’s Rights and the National Center for Youth Law. The defendants include Howard and Dr. Lee A. Norman, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

Note: This story was updated on Friday, July 10.

Chuck Carroll is a freelance reporter and can be reached at chuckcedits@gmail.com.

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