How We Can Strengthen Families Again
With the recent headlines about the Kansas foster care system and a legislative task force working to address challenges, it’s important to recall what happened over 20 years ago. In 1996, Kansas citizens, elected officials and private organizations transformed the state’s broken child welfare system. The journey is nothing short of remarkable and many external sources validate the improvements achieved in Kansas.
A Lawsuit Brings Needed Change
In the early 1990s, the Kansas child welfare system was strained and not performing as needed. There were escalating numbers of children in foster care waiting to be adopted, rising costs, lack of safety for children in care and uncertainty that the system could provide for the children it was serving.
In response, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit against the state agency. The 1993 settlement of the case resulted in significant mandated reforms that the state agency, then called the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services (SRS), was ordered to implement. Under the leadership of Governor Bill Graves, the state moved from a traditional child welfare system to one that was built on a strong public-private partnership. During 1995-97, the state focused on child protective services (CPS) investigations, but began working with private organizations to help improve the delivery of services to children and families.
One of the first private, nonprofit organizations that the state partnered with was KVC Kansas (also known as KVC Behavioral Healthcare). Now in 2017, KVC is the only original contractor still working in close partnership with the state. This marks more than 20 years of a successful public-private partnership and positive improvements in serving children and families.
According to an independent analysis from Casey Family Programs, two of the key qualities of the new initiative included:
- A lead agency model for different child welfare service components. This allowed for private partners to build their capacity, skills and specialization.
- Performance-based measurements. This held partners responsible for results such as keeping children safe while in foster care, keeping children with their siblings and helping children to be safely reintegrated with their families within one year if and when reintegration was the case plan goal.
Private Partners Help Strengthen Services
While the transformation was not simple or without lessons, it was by and large a huge success.
Some of the best outcomes KVC helped the state of Kansas achieve were:
- Safety – National leadership in ensuring children are safe while in foster care.
- More children in families – An increase in caring for children in family homes instead of group homes, from 70% to 96% – one of the highest rates in the nation.
- More kinship care – An increase in children who stay with relatives or nonrelated kin such as a teacher, coach or family friend while in foster care. Research shows this is better for the child. KVC Kansas has a kinship care rate of 47% of children, far surpassing the national average of 30%.
- More sibling connections – An increase in children kept with their siblings while in foster care up to 84%.
- Shorter time in foster care – “Long-term foster care” was removed as an option. Instead, a safe family reunification or adoption plan became the goal for each child.
- More adoptions – Twice as many children adopted, from 352 to 765 adoptions per year. KVC has matched over 4,000 children with adoptive families. These are children whose parents’ rights have been terminated by the courts and are waiting for a family.
- Fewer reentries – One of the lowest foster care system reentry rates in the nation (8%).
- More private donations and innovations – Community contributions of school supplies and holiday gifts for children in foster care, a 20-year history of Resource Family Conferences and KVC delivering therapy and training via MyLinkTM on iPads.
Due to these improvements, Kansas exited the lawsuit and began operating independently again.
In addition, many external agencies have validated KVC’s quality and role in improving the Kansas child welfare system. The Joint Commission fully accredits KVC Kansas’ programs and services, Child Trends and the Annie E. Casey Foundation verified through a five-year study that KVC’s creation of trauma-informed foster care benefits children and families, and child welfare agencies around the world have requested training and consultation from KVC Kansas on its best practices.
New Challenges to Address
Despite these significant improvements, every child welfare system – even those that work with private, nonprofit partners – can experience challenges.
In the last few years, the number of children in foster care has been increasing again. According to a recent U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) report, the number of children in the foster care system nationally has increased for the fourth year in a row. A similar report last year stated, “Nearly three quarters (71%) of U.S. states have reported an increase in the numbers of children entering foster care from 2014-15.”
Most government agencies and journalists attribute the rise, in part, to increased parental substance abuse. Of the 15 categories states can report for the circumstances associated with a child’s removal from home and placement into care, drug abuse by a parent had the largest percentage point increase.
“The continued trend of parental substance abuse is very concerning, especially when it means children must enter foster care as a result,” says Steven Wagner, Acting U.S. Assistant Secretary at the Administration for Children and Families. “The seriousness of parental substance abuse, including the abuse of opioids, is an issue we at HHS will be addressing through prevention, treatment and recovery-support measures.”
Neglect as a circumstance around removal has also been increasing. Access to substance abuse treatment, mental health treatment and other community resources is on the decline, making it difficult for families to get the help they need.
In addition to the challenges that are driving an increase in demand for child and family services is another growing problem: there is a well-documented national social worker shortage. Particularly in rural areas, this can lead to higher caseloads for child welfare workers, higher burnout and turnover, and decreased quality of services for children and families.
Where Do We Go from Here? Strengthen Again
It can be easy to forget the last 20 years and ascribe the recent challenges to the involvement of private, nonprofit partners. But the data speaks for itself – private partners helped dramatically improve outcomes for children and families, making Kansas a national leader in the early 2000s.
Thankfully, accountability is built into the current system. Contractors like KVC Kansas operate with significant transparency and monitoring at the local, state and federal levels and welcome ongoing reviews. There’s also financial accountability. KVC Kansas is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization and the family preservation and reintegration contracts it holds with the Kansas Department for Children and Families prohibit KVC from making a profit. If KVC revenues exceed expenses, the excess is paid back to the state. These accountability measures give the public visibility to finances and performance.
What we must focus on is strengthening our child welfare workforce and increasing preventative services available to families.
Strengthen the Child Welfare Workforce: The struggle to attract and retain qualified workers directly impacts the quality of services that children and families receive. When there aren’t enough staff, such as entry-level case managers or family support workers, staff members experience high caseloads. This leads to burnout and turnover. We must explore the range of creative ideas that KVC Kansas and others have proposed to better support child welfare workers so they can be a consistent presence while helping a family and provide quality, effective services.
Increase Preventative Services: Foster care is an important intervention meant to keep a child safe, but it should only be used when there are no other options to keep a child safely at home. The Children’s Alliance and others have stated that families’ access to substance abuse treatment, mental health treatment, safety net services and other community resources has been declining. We must explore ways to increase compassionate, preventative services that strengthen families. Prevention is not only better for children and families; it also costs significantly less than out-of-home care.
When implementing these strategies, we should encourage innovative problem-solving from the private partners. After all, innovation that leads to excellent performance is the primary benefit of involving private partners, and they have a history of delivering on this when the child welfare system is strong, equipped with adequate resources and operating at its best.
While there are challenges, let us be encouraged that there are many caring, talented professionals and experienced agencies eager to help. There are also thousands of citizens stepping forward as foster families, adoptive families, mentors, donors, volunteers, and advocates. We thank them and invite every individual, faith community and organization to get involved. We can strengthen families and safely reduce the number of children in foster care. Together, we can make Kansas a national child welfare leader again.
Information in this article is from KVC Kansas and from Casey Family Programs, “An Analysis of the Kansas and Florida Privatization Initiative” (April 2010).
See Related Articles:
- Answers to FAQs: Understanding KVC Kansas’ Role in the Kansas Child Welfare System
- How KVC Kansas Is Supporting and Retaining Its Child Welfare Staff
- Children Grow Best in Families: Moving from Congregate Care to Community-Based Care
- Safely Reducing Psychotropic Medication for Youth in Foster Care
- The KVC Institute Shares a Big Idea for Transforming Foster Care in America
- Children Need Families: An Open Letter from KVC Kansas President Danielle Bartelli to KVC Team