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Kansas still failing youth in its care
Monitor’s Report — the result of 2021 settlement agreement — shows lack of progress over past year

A content looking teenager with blue green hair sits by a train track

Every young person should have the opportunity to learn, grow and shape their future in a safe environment that is nurturing, supportive and centers their well-being. For youth in government care, it is incumbent upon states to ensure these ideals are respected.

Unfortunately, the state of Kansas continues to fall short of its commitment to the young people in its care, according to a newly released independent monitor's report. The National Center for Youth Law, co-counsel for a group of youth in the Kansas foster system whose 2018 lawsuit against the state led to the annual monitoring, will remain vigilant in ensuring the state follows through on its promised reforms.

On Aug. 14, the Center for the Study of Social Policy released its second annual report reviewing Kansas' progress toward achieving its commitments under the settlement agreement reached in McIntyre v. Howard. That class-action lawsuit was filed against officials from several state agencies — including the Departments for Children and Families (DCF), Health and Environment, and Aging and Disability Services — on behalf of children in foster care who experienced extreme placement instability and inadequate access to mental health resources. The Center for the Study of Social Policy found that in 2022 the state and its contractors failed to make required improvements to Kansas’ foster care system, and, in fact, backslid in several areas from its 2021 performance.

Co-counsel for the youth plaintiffs in McIntyre v. Howard, alongside the National Center for Youth Law, includes Kansas Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, Kansas City attorney and Child Welfare Law Specialist Lori Burns-Bucklew, and Children’s Rights. 

“This report highlights the critical need for Kansas to fast-track the development and implementation of a modern, integrated data system," said Freya Pitts, a senior attorney with the National Center for Youth Law. "Without reliable and consistent data tracking, DCF can’t evaluate whether its initiatives are working and can’t hold its private contractors accountable for serving children and their families across the state.”

Housing instability continues; behavioral health needs left unmet

The 2021 Settlement Agreement reached in McIntyre v. Howard requires structural changes to significantly improve stability and supports for children in Kansas' foster system. These include ending one-night placements and the practice of housing children in offices and other inappropriate settings. 

The latest Center for the Study of Social Policy report makes clear that Kansas is off track in meeting its commitments. Key findings include: 

  • Kansas did not stop housing foster youth overnight in provider offices. In fact, the number of nights youth spent in offices increased by 54% from 2021 to 2022, with 85 youth spending a total of 257 nights in case management provider offices last year.
  • Kansas did not meet several requirements for ensuring placement stability for youth in foster care. Although the state did meet one benchmark measuring the percentage of youth in foster care who were in a stable placement at the end of 2022, its performance declined for one-night and short-term placements, where children are quickly moved from one placement to another, as well as the total number of moves that children in care endure. 
  • Kansas did not meet the 2022 requirements relating to mental and behavioral health support. While performance did improve over 2021, of the cases reviewed, only 43% of youth entering care were properly and timely screened for trauma and mental health needs, and only 70% had their mental and behavioral health needs addressed. The target goal was 80% . 
  • Although Kansas established a Family Mobile Response Crisis Helpline, it is not yet assisting many children.
  • Kansas lacks a Comprehensive Child Welfare Information System and instead relies on outdated and sometimes incompatible data systems. The lack of a statewide data system has led to data challenges and impacted the Center for the Study of Social Policy’s ability to validate state data and review individual children’s case files for purposes of the report.

The report explains that “to achieve the promise of the Settlement Agreement for children, youth and families in Kansas, DCF will need to continue its efforts to thoughtfully examine why office placements continue to rise, why placement moves generally are trending in the wrong direction, and why too many children/youth do not have access to screenings and services to meet their mental and behavioral health needs.” Addressing Kansas’ placement stability challenges “is vital, as changes in living arrangements, schools, and social networks can exacerbate the initial trauma children and youth experience after being removed from their homes”.

“There is no question that this administration inherited a broken, under-resourced foster system — and reform takes time," said Leecia Welch, deputy legal director at Children’s Rights. "But, the Kansas legislature, governor, and DCF all need to act with a greater sense of urgency.  Foster children – especially those who are stuck in offices and night-to-night placements for extended periods — are losing their childhoods to this system. There must be greater accountability for the private contractors, more funding for community-based mental health services, and more robust support for families so that children can stay safely at home.”

Added Burns-Bucklew: "It is hard to understand how the state of Kansas can continue to be so negligent in its provision of mental health services to these youth who are in the foster system. Kansas is a poor parent indeed for these young folks who are struggling after having been removed from their homes and families."