Two-year-old law is pushing Kansas kids into foster care


State News

November 20, 2019 - 9:01 AM

Jonathan Stahl has eight children, and seven came from the foster care system. He and his wife, who live in Olathe, specialize in taking in teenage boys with behavioral issues. NOMIN UJIYEDIIN/KANSAS NEWS SERVICE

Holes punched in walls. Car headlights smashed. Windows broken. Weapons, threats, sexual comments. Children who can’t live with other children. Children whom foster parents won’t take in. Children who aren’t able to get the mental health care they desperately need.

Kansas foster care contractors and parents say all of these situations have become more common — and more risky — since 2017, when the state made sweeping changes to the juvenile justice system. The changes, they say, removed options for dealing with foster children who have high needs and violent behaviors.

KVC Kansas and St. Francis Ministries — which recruit foster parents, facilitate adoptions and provide mental health treatment for the state — say this influx of older children with mental illnesses and behavioral issues has strained their resources even further.

“I think we’ve taken one situation that was not working effectively,” KVC Kansas president Linda Bass said, “and we’ve created an alternate situation that is also not working effectively.”

But supporters of the law argue it is successfully keeping children out of the justice system, and a state agency overseeing the embattled foster care system notes there’s little data showing the changes have had a direct impact.

The law’s intent

SB 367, which took effect in 2017, was intended to prevent and reduce the damage of being caught up in the justice system at a young age. Among other changes, the law set up stricter standards for sending children to prison, group homes and jail. It created limits for how long children are allowed to be on probation, and it directed more children to “immediate intervention programs” — therapy, addiction treatment and other activities that they’d have to do in order to avoid being charged with a crime or sentenced to prison.

Since it took effect, the number of children in the state’s only juvenile prison dropped from 209 at the end of fiscal year 2017 to 166 at the end of fiscal year 2019. Nearly all of the state’s counties have immediate intervention programs, and about 90% of children complete them successfully. 

This means kids, especially those who’ve committed minor crimes, are staying out of prisons and staying in their communities, according to Greg Smith, a former state senator who helped craft the bill.

“Is it a perfect solution to what was happening in Kansas? No,” Smith said. “Are we getting better outcomes for juvenile offenders than we used to? Yes.”

The changes are a far cry from the way Kansas used to handle juvenile crimes, Smith said. He recalled hearing about a child who had his sentence at a group home extended for six months for using a forbidden cellphone to call his parents. He heard about other children who were incarcerated hours away from their families and hometowns for minor crimes like shoplifting.

“When you uproot a kid, particularly one that’s low level,” Smith said, “you’ve removed all their supports. Their family’s gone, their friends are gone, they’re not in the same school, they’re in a secure facility.

“It totally, for lack of a better term, screws up their world.”

There’s little evidence that the changes are to blame for foster care’s recent problems, Smith said.

Kansas’ foster care system, which is run by the Department of Children and Families, already doesn’t have enough foster families or mental health treatment. The system has been criticized for letting children sleep in offices and run away. Last year, advocates sued the state for frequently moving foster children from home to home, a lawsuit from which Gov. Laura Kelly wants to be removed.

Smith also cautioned that lawmakers shouldn’t try to change the law without knowing the full extent of its impact, for which there isn’t much data.

DCF Deputy Secretary Tanya Keys acknowledged that it’s hard to tell whether the children now entering foster care would have originally ended up in the juvenile justice system, adding that “we’re trying to figure out ways that we would be able to measure that.”