Monday, June 21, 2021

Here are some of the right "questions to ask” about foster care in Kansas (and almost everywhere else).

Photo by J. Stephen Conn

In an interview with an online news site, a state legislator from Kansas, Rep. Susan Concannon, lamented that when it comes to Kansas’ failed foster care system, “nobody even knows what questions to ask.”  She’s right.   So here are some of the questions everyone in Kansas should be asking, beginning with one about the problem that drives everything else: 

● Why does Kansas tear apart families and consign children to the chaos of foster care at one of the highest rates in America?  It’s a rate nearly double the national average and higher than all but seven other states, even when rates of child poverty are factored in.  Why has Kansas been doing this for decades?  

The Kansas obsession with tearing apart families inflicts enormous emotional trauma on children – the same trauma we saw when children were torn from their parents at the Mexican border.  That’s one reason why multiple studies find that, in typical cases, children left in their own homes do better even than comparably-maltreated children placed in foster care.   

Kansas State Rep. Susan Concannon

Taking so many children needlessly creates an artificial “shortage” of foster homes, increasing the pressure to lower standards and overcrowd homes.  That increases the odds of abuse in foster care itself. Nationwide study after study finds abuse in one-quarter to one-third of family foster homes, the rate of abuse in group homes and institutions is even worse. 

And all the time and effort spent on false allegations and needless removal of children is, in effect, stolen from finding the few children in real danger. That’s almost always the real reason for the tragic deaths of children “known to the system.”  So no, taking away all those children doesn’t make them safer.  On the contrary, the Kansas take-the-child-and-run approach makes all children less safe. 

● Is Kansas still exploiting a loophole in federal regulations (that’s the most generous interpretation) to avoid even counting a large number of short-term foster care placements? That’s something we documented in detail in our 2008 report on Kansas child welfare

● Why do we cling to stereotypes about all parents who lose children to foster care as sadists, brutes or hopeless addicts, when we should know better? Study after study shows that child welfare systems routinely confuse poverty with neglect.  Nowhere is that clearer than Kansas where cuts in public assistance were followed by increases in foster care.  Conversely, multiple studies find that even very small increases in cash significantly reduce what agencies call “neglect.” 

● Why do we assume spending more on the current lousy system will fix it when Kansas actually spends on child welfare at a rate well above the national average when family poverty is factored in? The reason Kansas spends so much and gets so little is no mystery: In child welfare, the worse the option the more it costs.  In addition to throwing away lives (as the Kansas City Star documented so well, more foster youth “graduate” to jail than to college) foster care wastes vast sums of money that could be better spent on safe, proven alternatives to keep families together.  If the Kansas family policing agency (a more accurate term than “child welfare” agency) is to be trusted to spend more, it needs to show it can spend smarter. 

● Why does Rep. Concannon think the system needs more court-appointed special advocates?  Has she read the comprehensive research showing that CASA backfires – prolonging foster care and reducing the likelihood that children will be reunified with their parents, while doing nothing to make children safer?  Has she read the law review article documenting how racial bias is baked into the CASA model?  Does she know about the Kansas CASA chapter that held a fundraiser featuring a blackface act?  

Yes, like most people in child welfare, CASA volunteers mean well.  But they are an inadvertent contributor to racial bias that runs so deep in Kansas that Black children are in foster care at a rate more than double their rate in the general population – a far worse record than the national average. 

● Why aren’t lawmakers focusing on a far more effective alternative – providing high-quality legal representation for families?  No, that’s not to get “bad parents” off.  It’s so families can have a defense team to craft alternatives to the cookie-cutter “service plans” issued by agencies like the Kansas Department of Children and Families, so their children can remain with them safely.  The model has been tested and proven everywhere from New York City to Tulsa, Oklahoma.  Has anyone concerned about Kansas child welfare even looked into it? 

One last question: Very few places in America come anywhere near getting child welfare right.  But those that do better begin by asking the right questions.  Is Kansas ready to start?