Records show 11 kids died in Kansas foster care in 2023

The Department for Children and Families reported 11 children died in foster care last year, including two suicides.


State News

March 12, 2024 - 2:37 PM

The Kansas Department for Children and Families. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Eleven youths died in the state’s often-scrutinized foster care system during 2023, according to records from the state Department for Children and Families.

The department released the records through a Kansas Open Records Act request filed by Kansas Reflector following demands for accountability in the wake of the death of a 5-year-old girl who was sexually assaulted and died last year after living in a homeless camp.

Kansas Department for Children and Families Secretary Laura Howard said the department works to provide safety and resources for children in the system. Howard also is urging the Legislature to change the law to allow for more information to be made public in cases of abuse and neglect.

“Unfortunately we do have some youth, just like youth who aren’t in care, who might take their own life,” Howard said. “We take that very seriously and that focus, but we also have natural deaths that occur.” 

Across the state, 9,308 youths were held in foster care in 2023. Of the 11 deaths, six were listed as unintentional injury and three deaths were listed as natural. Beside the two suicides, one youth died from fentanyl exposure, another was in a car accident, and a third drowned. One 17-year-old was found dead from gunshot wounds after he went on the run. In five of these cases, health conditions such as pneumonia were listed.

“If we see trends or things we need to address, we’ll do that,” Howard said during a Kansas Reflector interview. “I think sometimes the things we’ve seen that are health-related unfortunately have to do with children who have very, very serious disabilities and come into our care in very fragile circumstances. So obviously, if we see anything that would indicate that we needed to be doing something differently in terms of health care, we would address that.”

Howard said all deaths were investigated thoroughly by the department and by the state attorney general through the annual child death review report. A board of health professionals, law enforcement officers, educators and attorneys examines each child death in Kansas to create the report. 

Between 2019 to 2021, 392 out of 1,074 child fatalities reviewed by the board had history with DCF’s child protective services, according to the annual death review report, with situations like being held in state custody, having siblings removed from the home, or having open child protective services cases. Of the 32 child homicides in 2021, twenty-three of those families had been involved with child protective services before death. 

Adina Morse, child welfare advocate with Kansas Appleseed, emphasized the importance of offering adequate mental health support and other services for youth in care. 

“It is a tragedy when any child dies,” Morse said. “A commitment within the foster care system to ensure access to timely physical and mental health supports and placement stability for children, as well as support for biological families to prevent breaking up the family in the first place, can only help reduce these tragedies.”

DCF most recently came under fire in October when the case of Zoey Felix, the Topeka 5-year-old girl who died of sexual assault, became widely publicized. The state’s child welfare agency received nine reports asking it to look into her case before her death.

Lawmakers and concerned members of the public pressed Howard for answers about agency action, but a man was charged with rape and capital murder before DCF could release information, due to statute limiting information release. 

Current law stipulates information can be accessed via KORA requests after the agency’s investigation ends, as long as the investigation rules the death was caused because of abuse or neglect. Within seven business days of a KORA request, DCF is required to provide records on the age and sex of the child, date of the fatality and a summary of child welfare reports, as well as department-recommended services provided.

Howard asked lawmakers to amend that law and require DCF to publicly release certain information on a child fatality once criminal charges are filed. Encapsulated as House Bill 2628, the bill passed the House 119-0 and was sent to the Senate for further action. 

“The inability to provide that basic data, I think, leads to a lot of speculation,” Howard said during a Monday Senate committee hearing on the bill. 

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