National Newswire

Examining Private Foster Care
in Kansas

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Fifteen years ago, Kansas--the first state to fully privatize its child welfare system--was blazing a path as it went, and blazing it quickly. The decision to privatize came after several years of crisis in the system, which had prompted a lawsuit from Children's Rights. Kansas settled in 1993 and agreed to significantly reform its child welfare system, with the call for change being echoed by the state legislature and governor. There was a "very quick changeover," according to Michelle Ponce, director of communications for the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services (SRS), which includes child welfare; total privatization was achieved in only two years' time. "We learned a lot through that process," Ponce says, the speed of which presented some challenges. "It was good, in a sense, that we were able to get it done rather than spreading it out over a number of years."

The pressure to privatize quickly led to some rough patches, particularly in workforce issues, including staff turnover and large caseloads. Additionally, some stakeholders in the state were left behind during the rapid changes, and privatization has remained controversial within Kansas. As neighboring Nebraska moves toward privatization of some child welfare services, it has faced some recent setbacks. In early April, the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services lost two of five lead agencies contracted for foster care--and this has led to many in Kansas questioning privatization there. Despite the mixed feelings, there have been vast improvements in service availability and quality in Kansas since privatization. "Overall I think it was a success--it is a success," Ponce says. "We're in a different place now."

Although there is little data to compare current performance to performance before privatization, Kansas is moving in a positive trend in many areas. The state's most recent Child and Family Services Review (CFSR) was published in 2008, and earned a "strength" rating for 9 of 16 safety and permanency item measures, with several other measures near the 90% threshold that earns that rating. Data from SRS indicates that the number of adoptions are growing and the length of stay in out-of-home care is shrinking.

Privatization means different things in different jurisdictions, but in Kansas there are five regions and services are divided into the general categories of family preservation, foster care, and adoption. Child protection services are still handled by SRS, not a private agency. To facilitate matching children with potential families, adoption services are handled by one agency with a statewide contract. Two private agencies take the lead on family preservation in the five regions, and four agencies cover the five regions for foster care; a total of six private partners, some with dual responsibilities, provide services. Ponce explains that after a child is placed in the care of the state, that child and family's services are taken over by the private partners, who make decisions about the type of care they give. "Day-to-day case management is the caseworker's responsibility," she says.

The overarching goal of privatization in Kansas was to improve outcomes. To determine whether privatization achieved that goal, SRS had to develop performance measurements, which it incorporated into the contracts with private agency partners. Kansas was one of the first states to do this, and their performance measurements are congruent with standards in the CFSRs. In recent months, the legislature--specifically, the Joint Committee on Children's Issues--has questioned the contract bidding and awarding process that SRS follows.

One question the committee raised was whether private agency contracts actually have a financial incentive to keep children in foster care, rather than moving them into permanent homes, whether that means reunification or adoption by kin or other foster families. Some relatives of children in foster care have garnered attention from the press and legislators in Kansas by alleging that children were removed from their care without reason. Ponce is quick to point out that these few cases are "a small percentage of the caseload" across the state. "Family placements or other types of kinship placements are a high priority," she says, adding that language in contracts with the private agency partners emphasizes SRS's commitment to placing children with kin and keeping siblings together. She notes that the percentage of Kansas children placed with relatives is greater than the national trend, and that three-quarters of children who have a sibling are placed with their sibling.

Early this year, members of the Joint Committee introduced four bills that would change SRS procedure. One of these is a step back from privatization, relieving SRS of its authority to contract with private agencies for foster care services, and returning the responsibility for those services to SRS. At press time, this bill (H.B. 2461) was still in committee and had not been voted on.

Meanwhile, SRS planned to celebrate May as National Foster Care Month with a focus on the safe reduction of the number of children in care through prevention and timely permanency. Ponce notes that over the last several years there has been a renewed effort in Kansas to reduce the number of children coming into care with "front-end" services. She describes a geographic disproportionality within the state, with more children in care from some regions, but says that SRS has been working to overcome that challenge. "That certainly is a success that we're proud of," Ponce says.

Meghan Williams is a contributing editor to Children's Voice.

Colorado

The Colorado Children's Campaign says that the state has the fastest growing child poverty rate in the nation, according to a recent report. Despite the rate being only slightly worse than the median--Colorado's rate ranked 22nd nationally--it has climbed 72% since 2000. The highest poverty rates were in Denver County and the San Luis Valley, but most of the growth was seen in Denver's suburbs, with the number of children in poverty increasing by more than 35,000 there. Numbers from the report tell "a tale of two Colorados," with a large income gap between Latinos and non-Latinos.

Tennessee

Both houses of the state legislature voted unanimously to amend provisions of Title 37, which required a county to pay the state Department of Children's Services, a CWLA member, for keeping children in state custody if that county's placement rate was more than three times the state average. The law applied to children in foster care and the juvenile justice system. In the new bill repealing this provision, an amendment in the state senate requires DCS to provide judges with a semiannual report including each county's rate of commitment of children to state custody and the statewide average.

Virginia

The Children's Services Systems Transition initiative is being phased in across Virginia. Currently in place in about a dozen localities, the initiative focuses on family-based placements and youth-driven practice, as well as measuring outcomes. Led by the Virginia Department of Social Services, a CWLA member agency, the initiative involves all child-serving agencies in the state, including juvenile justice, education, and behavioral health and developmental services. Since the program began in 2007, the number of children in foster care has dropped by one- fifth, and the number in group homes has been cut in half. Learn more at www.vafamilyconnections.com.

To comment on this article, e-mail voice@cwla.org.

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