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Kansas Foster Care System Overwhelmed As Even More Kids Flood In

The Department for Children and Families disputes that connection. Even in a system such as the one in Kansas — where the raw number of beds across foster homes, psychiatric facilities, shelters and group homes is close to the number of kids entering ...

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Listen Listening.. / 4:44 A call sets it offOne of Kansas’ two foster care contractors learns another child has landed in state custodyIt has four hours to pick the kid up Workers phone other child placement agencies listing the specific needs for a particular childFamily members are found and calledIf the contractor is picking up a school-aged kid, workers will call the school to get information about teachers, coaches or parents of friends who might take themOlder kids can offer their own suggestions about nearby family membersIf those options don’t pan out, contractors look for shelters and group homesBut almost a year and a half ago, placement workers started coming up emptyThat’s how children ended up on couches, futons and cots in contractor offices across the state.  “I’ve been doing this for 17 years..I had not spent the night in the office with a child — ever,” said Danielle Bartelli, president of eastern Kansas contractor KVC Kansas and a former social worker with the companyOf all the headlines about foster care in the past year — missing kids, children harmed while in state custody, shredded documents in the state child welfare agency — it’s news about children sleeping in offices that foster care administrators say showed just how overwhelmed the state system had becomeThe basic problem is just too few beds, and far too many kids who need them.  Kansas isn’t aloneFoster care systems across the country are seeing a spike in children entering care, which many states attribute to families ripped apart by the opioid crisisDrugs may also be a factor in the Kansas bump, though policymakers say Kansas hasn’t seen the worst of the opioid crisisThat could mean the Kansas foster care crisis gets worse before it gets betterAt the same time, some of the services intended to wrap around struggling families or kids within their own communities have taken a hitKansas has 222 fewer psychiatric beds than it did in 2013, and other mental health services have struggled to find fundingChanges to state welfare policies have dramatically cut the number of people receiving assistance, which some suggest is a factor in increasing foster care numbersThe Department for Children and Families disputes that connectionEven in a system such as the one in Kansas — where the raw number of beds across foster homes, psychiatric facilities, shelters and group homes is close to the number of kids entering foster care — not all kids can be placed right awayA 10-year-old boy might need care in a psychiatric residential treatment facility, but perhaps the only open beds are for girls.  There might be a foster bed right in a teenage girl’s school district, but a teenage boy is sleeping in the room’s other bed — teenagers of the opposite gender can’t share a roomWith the sheer number of kids coming in, that’s likely to happen more oftenSo contractors are left with no better option other than an office couch, and kids feeling unwanted "It sends a message when kids are sleeping in offices that there isn't a place for them." “Kids who are in the child welfare system are already struggling with not feeling like they belong,” said Christie Appelhanz, president of the nonprofit Children’s Alliance.  “It sends a message when kids are sleeping in offices that there isn’t a place for them.” The trend in overnight stays began for KVC Kansas in September of 2016StFrancis Community Services, the western contractor, saw its first child sleep overnight in an office in February 2017From there, it grew — and it’s still growingLast fiscal year, 108 kids slept in contractor officesThis fiscal year, with four months left to go, that number is already up to 167Most stayed one night, though a handful stayed two or three, or, this month, fiveSo far, 20 children have stayed in an office overnight in FebruaryKansas repeatedly set records for the number of children in foster care over the last five yearsMore than 7,200 kids landed in out-of-home placements as of December 2017, up 43 percent from the same time in 2012Many of Kansas’ foster kids come into the system because of traumaSome respond by acting out in ways that make it unsafe to put them with other childrenThey need the more intensive supervision of a residential treatment center or other psychiatric facility.   Many of the kids crashing on couches fall into that high-needs category.  Some had been physically or sexually aggressiveSome had landed in the juvenile justice systemFrom January through June last year, KVC Kansas had at least two kids stay in its office who needed psychiatric care, but no residential treatment facility had roomStFrancis saw much the same patternSome were older kids or sibling groups, which contractors can have a tougher time placing.  "We never want a kid to be in the office." "We never want a kid to be in the office,” said Lindsey Stephenson, KVC Kansas’ vice president“That’s always our very last option.” The fact that it was the only option 230 times in 2017  put the contractors in a tough spotThey want to make kids as comfortable as possible when they stay in offices overnight — but putting in beds or setting up the offices as full shelters would mean surrendering to the idea that it’s become the new normalThough the places these kids are staying are standard offices — desks, computers, ringing phones, filing cabinets — they’re also set up with kids in mindBoth KVC Kansas and StFrancis are accustomed to having kids in their offices for supervised family visits, or for meetings with social workers, or even while they’re waiting for placement during the dayKids staying overnight at a StFrancis office get a toothbrush, new pajamas, their own blankets and pillows, said StFrancis vice president Diane CarverThe idea is to stick with normal bedtime routines while placement workers elsewhere in the office call around to find actual homesAt the KVC Kansas Topeka office, volunteers painted Disney-, space- and sports-themed murals around the officeA freezer in their Olathe office’s kitchen is packed with donated meals that social workers can heat up for overnight kidsCrayon marks along an office wall show that kids have been taking some artistic license with the building, and bookshelves in a kid-friendly room are packed with movies for the nearby TVBut when kids are sleeping there, said DCF secretary Gina Meier-Hummel, contractors and the state must do better“It’s not an acceptable practice,” she said“It’s not a practice that we endorse — nor should we plan for it in the future.” Her agency and the foster care agencies that find homes are scrambling to increase the beds available for kids — hoping contractors find something better than a couch at midnightThey’re redoubling efforts to place kids with relatives or other trusted adults, recruiting more foster parents, and pushing for more beds in shelters and psychiatric treatment facilitiesA fix won’t come quicklyTraining foster parents takes timeSo does opening and licensing beds in residential facilitiesThe number of kids entering foster care, in the meantime, is still trending upSo KVC Hospitals, which runs the psychiatric residential treatment facilities KVC oversees, has been setting up crisis centersThose collections of short-term beds offer a more home-like emergency placement than a couch or futon in an officeThe company opened one in Hays in September, and was scheduled to open a second in Kansas City, Kansas, in January, though that’s now been pushed back until springThose crisis centers aren’t funded by KVC Kansas’ contract with the Department for Children and FamiliesOnce they’re up and running, KVC can get the same kind of reimbursement for kids sleeping in them that it would get for other foster placements, but KVC Hospitals is picking up the tab to get them set upThe state, too, is looking to increase emergency bedsEnhancements to DCF’s budget proposed last month would put nearly $1 million toward emergency foster care placements over the next two yearsThat money could pay for beds held open for kids who come in unexpectedly and can’t be placed immediatelyDCF and its contractors are also recruiting more foster families to take kids with a variety of needs, Meier-Hummel saidThe state launched a $500,000 campaign to recruit more foster parents last yearIncreasing the capacity of an overloaded system, though, won’t fix the problem "It's going to take a government-wide response." “It’s going to take a government-wide response,” said Christie Appelhanz“That means the executive branch, the legislative branch, the judicial branch, and, quite frankly, it’s going to take increased funding.”  Madeline Fox is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politicsYou can reach her on Twitter @maddycfox. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to the original postTags: Kansas News Servicefoster carefoster childrenKansas LegislatureKansas governmentKansas Department for Children and FamiliesFeatureTweetShareGoogle+Email Related Content As Kansas Foster Care System Sets Records, Advocates Call For More Family Services By Meg Wingerter • May 15, 2017 Meg Wingerter / Kansas News Service Editor’s note: Kansas privatized its foster care system in 1997 after a lawsuit revealed widespread problemsTwenty years later, the number of Kansas children in foster care has shot up — by a third in just the last five years — and lawmakers are debating whether the system once again needs serious changesThe Kansas News Service investigated problems in the system and possible solutionsThis is the first story in a series Audit Finds Concerns About Child Placement, Services In Kansas Foster Care System By Meg Wingerter • Apr 28, 2017 File Photo / Kansas News Service An audit of the Kansas foster care system found the state doesn’t ensure children are placed close to home or receive all services they needThe Legislature’s independent auditing team presented the third part of its report on the Kansas foster care system Friday to the Legislative Post Audit CommitteeThe final part of the audit attempted to answer if the state’s two foster care contractors have sufficient resources to provide services and if privatization has improved children’s outcomes and lowered costs Kansas Foster Care Fix-It Panel Still Looking For Repairs By Madeline Fox • Jan 9, 2018 Madeline Fox / Kansas News Service  A task force formed to fix Kansas’ troubled foster care system relied largely on the ideas of a lone member to meet a deadline for preliminary suggestions, reflecting the daunting nature of its job and some troubles within the panel Psych Bed Shortage Could Be Driving Kansas Foster Care Problems By Madeline Fox • Feb 2, 2018 Madeline Fox / Kansas News Service Troubles in the Kansas foster care system might stem in large part from a shortage of places that can help children in psychiatric crisis, say some lawmakers and child advocate groupsSince 2013, the number of psychiatric residential treatment facilities in Kansas has dropped from 11 to eight, with 222 fewer available beds

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