TOPEKA – Laura Howard would like to highlight improvements to Kansas’ foster care system following her return to state government in January 2019.
She is working on further progress.
Department of Children and Families secretary says she is launching autism task force, focusing on prevention programs, deploying 24/7 mobile emergency services out of 7, bringing in community organizations and educators and reducing the rate of children moving from house to house.
In an interview for the Kansas Reflector podcast, Howard recalled the challenges she inherited when Governor Laura Kelly chose her to head two agencies – the DCF and the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services. Howard had worked in the state social services field from 1997 to 2011, when these agencies were combined under a different name.
Upon her return two and a half years ago, she took control of an unstable system destroyed by unprecedented numbers of children in state custody. The problems have been documented in numerous reports on deaths and abuse, missing children, human trafficking, children sleeping in offices, low graduation rates and funding secretly denied to entrepreneurs.
“Too many children in care, a system in a lot of chaos, children who move around without finding stability, few placements with relatives and frankly not many other resources in the field of prevention to support families in Kansas, ”Howard said. “So that was really the picture coming in.”
Among the improvements made under his watch: The rate at which children in the Kansas foster care system move from one household to another fell from an average of 9.9 movements per 1,000 days to 5.1 movements. The number of children in state custody has increased from 7,600 to 6,800. The number of children in foster care has increased from 30% to 42%. Fewer and fewer foster children go missing and fewer flee custody more than once.
Last month, federal authorities conducted a human trafficking operation in which they focused on missing foster children across the country, Howard said, and noticed a difference in Kansas.
“One of the federal agents commented on the changes he saw in terms of the number of young people out of care and what it looked like today compared to two or three years ago,” Howard said.
Howard said many advances have been made possible by the Family First Prevention Services Act. In 2019, the legislature agreed to invest matching funds in the federal program to provide access to programs designed to prevent children from being placed in foster care. This includes parenting skills building contracts in each county, addiction services, and support for relatives who can help a child.
So far, 89% of children referred to Family First programs have not been placed in foster care.
“It’s approximately 1,500 youth and families across the state who have been able to receive the supports they need to safely care for these children at home,” Howard said.
Still, the improvements have been tempered by lingering challenges.
The state settled a Kansas Appleseed lawsuit in January over the instability of the foster care system. The conditions require Kansas to meet the federal standard for investment stability – 4.4 movements per 1,100 days – within four years. The state should also provide prompt mental health assessments when children enter the foster care system.
Kansas Reflector has reported financial misconduct at the state’s largest foster home provider, Saint Francis Ministries, and the systemic failure to connect foster children with autism with the care they need. .
Howard said his agency was close to completing an audit of Saint Francis’s finances and had already forced the organization to repay $ 9.4 million in public funds.
“We are nearing the final stages of this,” Howard said. “We’re not going to see big things that show Kansas funds have been misused. So I’m really happy to see that.
Howard asked the Kansas Health Institute to help facilitate a working group to address concerns identified in the Kansas Reflector reports on autism services. The task force will include parents, foster parents, youth and service providers, Howard said.
Among the questions they will be asked to answer: Where does the state need revenue? What are the innovative ways to expand the workforce? What can be done administratively. Who can the state partner with in educational institutions to make progress? How can they make sure foster parents get the training they need?
This problem “has been brewing for a number of years,” Howard said.
“It is time for us to come up with a plan of action that I cannot execute on my own, but we can certainly have in front of the Legislature, the Governor, stakeholders and other partners to say, how can we move forward.” ? It’s so critical. It’s so important, ”Howard said.