Time to stop assuming foster kids aren’t our problem

Following is a speech I’m giving to the Wichita Metro Crime Commission next week. If it inspires you to action, email me at 4acelaw@gmail.com to set up a time for me to present this issue to your church or civic group.

Thank you for the opportunity to talk about juvenile justice and the foster care system. For far too long we’ve looked at these two areas of law as necessary evils and ignorantly refused to make the connection between them and the rest of the legal system. Today I will share with you indisputable proof that our failure to acknowledge their importance—that they are the gateway courts to every other problem we face today—has made us less safe and financially solvent as a society. I will also share the sad reality that waiting for DCF or government to solve these problems will just exacerbate the problem. States across the country have been adopting the latest trends in foster care and juvenile justice reform for years, and we still have problems, perhaps even more so than had they not acted. I will also share with you indisputable proof that we can immediately impact case outcomes and thereby protect our community from the worst outcomes by getting personally involved.

Child abuse and neglect is a problem that’s impossible to ignore. Seems like every couple weeks we see a report of a dead child. It also seems that all of these cases in Kansas involve DCF, as if Kansas is the problem. However, this is a mistake. The truth is Kansas isn’t great, or poor, but average and perhaps a little better than average. For example, a few years ago Florida audited its DCF agency and discovered that over a 5 year period, almost 90 children were dying every year while abuse investigations were pending. California averages 50 foster care deaths per year. Colorado averages more than 20. One study revealed that Kansas’s foster care death rate is about half of where it should be based on our foster care population. So, regardless how tragic each of these deaths is, it could be/should be much worse.

Kansas does remove more children from homes than other states, such as Florida. But another way to look at it is that perhaps removing more children than other states might be a good thing—we don’t experience the high death rate before removal that other states do.

In 2019 DCF received more than 14,000 reports of abuse in Sedgwick County. With less than a couple dozen investigators, they triaged these cases down to 672 filed cases, which is more than the 583 in 2018. That’s about 4% of the reported cases. Just under 1300 children are in out-of-home placements overall. It’s been many months since we read about a foster child death. Unless they are being swept under the rug, you can count on one hand the foster child deaths each year. But, there’s more to this story than instant, easy to see tragedy.

The KC Star received permission to survey prison inmates in several states to determine if they were products of foster care. More than half-a-dozen completed their surveys before the Star’s multi-part series of articles broke. Nationally, 1 in 4 inmates were foster kids. The worst state was Kansas, with 1 of 3. We have 11,000 inmates. If that number applies to all inmates and not just the responders, that’s almost 4,000 who are products of foster care. So, let’s dispel the myth that this isn’t our problem. Foster kids victimized by the system and heartless citizens who look the other way leads some former fosters to steal, rape, or kill and thus make it everyone’s problem.

Here’s what we know about good foster care outcomes. Kids do better when they are placed in their communities. Kids do better when they are placed with relatives. Kids do better when they can see their parents while the parents work on their problems. Kids do better when we place them with families equipped to deal with their unique needs and personalities. Kids become productive adults and good parents when they graduate high school and take advantage of free college and trade school education available to them as foster children.

Good outcomes are not happening enough in Kansas. Once a child is removed from the home it’s a long, drawn out process that sometimes does more harm than good. The overall out-of-home placement length is 20.5 months; reunification case plans, 9 months; adoption case plans, 39 months. Sadly, this is made worse by the lack of sufficient foster placements. For example, of that 1300 Sedgwick County number, only 800 were placed in Sedgwick County. Statewide, we have approximately 2,700 foster families for more than 7,600 kids. This makes it hard to ideally match kids with families equipped to care for them, which leads to multiple disruptions. Over a 1,000 day case length, the average number of placements is 10.

The best measurement as to the damage the system inflicts on these children is graduation rates. In 2019, less than 39% graduated high school. It’s just 30% in the Wichita Region, the second lowest of the 4 Kansas regions. Seems to me that this pitiful number is probably what leads to the hopelessness that compels these kids to turn to crime. On that note, one study shows that for foster kids in 5 or more placements, 90% will be involved in the criminal justice system. Again, Kansas’s average over 1,000 days is 10!

So, now that we know how awful the situation is, what’s the solution? It’s us.

There are 513,000 residents in Sedgwick County. 49k claim to be Protestant Christians; 79k claim to be Catholic Christians. Only 800 families are available to foster; that’s less than 6/10ths of 1% of the believers, and less than 2/10ths of 1% overall. So, the first thing we need is more citizens stepping up to foster. 1% of the Christians would be just enough to meet the need. 2% and we could perfectly match them and cut down on the number of placements.

Fostering is a 24-7 proposition. There’s another less time consuming option that dramatically impacts case outcomes. Become a Court Appointed Special Advocate, or CASA. CASAs spend 10-15 hours a month on just one child or family of children. They meet the child, keep an eye on the case, and report to the judge what’s being done or not being done by the parties. While this sounds like a small commitment, the impact is profound. 77% of kids with CASAs graduate high school. USD 259’s overall rate is just 74%. Almost 7% of kids reunified with their families are removed within 12 months; less than 1% of CASA kids are removed. It also has a dramatic impact on the runaway rate and helps DCF locate runaways when they leave their placements.

In 2018 we were only able to help 152 kids with CASAs. After telling this story to churches and civic groups, in 2019 we helped 220. Better but several hundred less than we need.

Finally, Sedgwick now has the Youthrive mentorship program for kids 17-21 years. Johnson County’s experience is that 80% of YT kids graduate. Cara Mattson tells me that they have 32 mentors. However, they need men, and almost all mentors are women.

Two weeks ago Gov. Kelly announced that she wants to consolidate DCF, the department of aging, and the juvenile justice system under one umbrella. Bigger is always better, right? I suspect that this is another dramatic change that might look good on paper but won’t move the needle on case outcomes. Even if it does impact outcomes, it will be years before we see the results. In the meantime, we need to help Sedgwick County kids NOW.

Here’s what you can do to dramatically impact at least one child’s life:

Be a foster parent. We have several agencies here, including SFM, Ember Hope, DCCCA, Salvation Army, Restoration Family Services, and KVC.
Be a CASA. Contact CASA of Sedgwick County for details.
Be a Youthrive mentor.

We know that if more citizens step forward to help these kids directly, we will save them from a system that destroys their hopes and dreams. Stop complaining and start helping.

I’ll end with a Bible verse that is universal in application. James 1:27. Perfect faith is this, that we meet widows and orphans in their affliction. We aren’t. WE are failing these kids. Time to step up and be part of the solution.

One final ask. Every time I present to churches and civic clubs people step up. If you are part of a church or philanthropic civic organization, please put them in touch with me so I can tell your friends and neighbors what they can do to help.

A new year means new goals!

Welcome to 2020! It’s a new year with a new set of goals. I’ve never been much of a “resolution” person. For me it’s goals. Goals are something to work toward and achieve. Resolutions are things to walk away from when they seem daunting.

In 2020 I have a few things to do. A few personal and financial goals that are between my family and I, and some career objectives, including running for reelection, which I’ll share with you since they will help us continue to do good work for the community.
I’m in a new assignment as of January 2, 2020, which moved me to the main courthouse. I will cover dearly departed Judge Terry Pullman’s criminal docket for January, then transition to civil for the balance of 2020 and beyond. I left my child in need of care and juvenile dockets behind, which is sad since I loved that work. Fortunately, this eliminates any conflicts I had before, so I will not only continue community outreach efforts for foster care, but be more directly involved in the groups we’re forming to support foster parents and children, so my sadness is somewhat assuaged by the exciting opportunities this brings.

More important, I am continuing to ramp up the campaign for reelection. Unless judges make attorneys and parties who appear before them mad, or are woefully unprepared for a campaign, we usually don’t get opposition in elections, but sometimes a wild card surprises us. These are usually lawyers who aren’t plugged into the bar or respective political party. The best offense is a good defense. So the plan is continue to be a fair, unbiased, prepared and professional judge, do good work for the community, and be prepared for any unexpected surprise. For this I need your help.
Please email me at kevin4judge@gmail.com if you have a church or community group that would like to hear about CASA, mentoring, or foster care opportunities. The data is dire and these kiddos need our help.

Please consider donating to the campaign. I will be knocking on doors and engaging in other campaign-related activities to make my division less attractive to potential opponents, and this takes money. Just click on the donate button on this website to make an online contribution, or send a check to “Re-elect Judge Kevin M. Smith” to P.O. Box 1633, Wichita, KS 67201.

Finally, I’m compiling a list of potential volunteers for parades, door knocking, etc. Please email me your name, address, and phone number if you’d like to help in these ways. Prominent placement sites for campaign signs are appreciated too.
God bless and have a Happy New Year!

Don’t forget to Vote in August and November!!!

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

2019 is almost gone. From 2016 to now, God put me in a place to impact foster kids in my courtroom and on a bigger scale through community outreach via church and civic group presentations, and in partnership with Dr. Rebecca Reddy and other foster care advocates as we put together a coalition of concerned citizens to support foster parents and children. On the eve of 2020, I have mixed feelings. On January 2 I will transfer to civil and no longer have a child in need of care (CINC) docket. I look forward to growing as a judge with the increased responsibilities. I will greatly miss the children, families, and stakeholders in my CINC courtroom, but know that the opportunities to impact foster families and children on a wider scale will far exceed what they are now.

We must think bigger.

The problems we face in Sedgwick County and Kansas are far bigger than one judge’s CINC docket. This is a community-wide problem that won’t go away until everyone steps up to fix the problem. Governor, legislators, DCF, courts, churches, civic groups, you and I must do our parts to care for foster children and support the families who sacrifice their time and treasure to care for the least among us. “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” James‬ ‭1:27‬ ‭(ESV).‬‬

Everyone reading this can do something. You can foster, serve as a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) volunteer, mentor older youths as a Youthrive mentor or Big Brother/Sister, or support those in your church or neighborhood who are helping foster parents and children. I’d love to present the foster care crisis to your church or civic organization, for example. Email me at 4acelaw@gmail.com if interested.

Just because you don’t want to do the right thing doesn’t mean you should make yourself feel better by convincing others to not help.

We must stop making excuses for our lack of action. I find it amusing when random comments to my posts include the alleged profit motive of foster parents. It’s obvious that such people haven’t bothered talking to actual foster parents who receive a tiny stipend that’s never enough to pay for their time and out of pocket expenses associated with caring for these kids. Indeed, the lack of financial resources for these families is one of the main reasons we lose as many foster families as we recruit. I’m sure the poisonous words of these people have stopped many willing people from doing what their hearts told them to do.

I need your help.

In 2020 I ask friends, family, Sedgwick County citizens, and colleagues to help me continue the work we started in 2016. I am up for reelection in 2020. While my role in the court will change, my commitment to community outreach will not. I will continue to scream from the rooftops the need for citizens to step up as foster parents, CASAs, and mentors. Being a duly elected judge opens up opportunities to speak on this issue, so I ask you to support the campaign in whatever way you can so I can continue the momentum. I also ask that you keep an eye out for outreach opportunities coming up in 2020. On April 2, 7-9 pm, for example, Friends University is hosting a foster care panel discussion, cosponsored by CASA of Sedgwick County and the Mattress Hub.

Please sign up on the campaign site for email updates and follow me on Facebook and Twitter to keep track of campaign events and presentations. Give if you can (click on the donate button to the right), and please email or message me if you’d like to help in other ways such as knocking on doors, marching in parades, etc.

You can do something to make others’ lives better.

Use this time to consider what you can do to impact our community for the better. “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Mark‬ ‭10:45‬ ‭(ESV).‬‬ Your service opportunity may not be foster care, but there’s something you can do to make someone’s life better. Whatever that is, stop pondering and start acting.

Have a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Promoted and still committed to impacting foster care!

I’m happy and sad. Friday my chief judge assigned me to Civil Court due to the untimely passing of Judge Terry Pullman. While I’m having a hard time letting go of the cases on my CINC docket in particular, this promotion will give me an opportunity to help Sedgwick County citizens in a different capacity. More important and relevant to our outreach efforts to get citizens engaged in solutions to the foster care crisis, it eliminates all potential conflicts that arise from being a CINC court judge and speaking out about the crisis. I will continue to present the foster care crisis in the community and volunteer opportunities for our citizens.

Time to step up to help foster kids!

The young Jewish man was traveling to Jericho from Jerusalem. A band of robbers fell upon him. They robbed and beat him, leaving him for dead on the side of the road. A Jewish priest passed by. Instead of stopping to help, he walked to the other side of the road and kept going. A while later a Levite passed by and did the same. Fortunately for the man, a Samaritan passed by and stopped to help. It’s important to fully understand the significance of a Samaritan stopping to help; other castes of Jews hated Samaritans, and Samaritans hated other Jews. Yet this Samaritan didn’t see a Jew, Christian, Muslim, Samaritan or Gentile. He saw a neighbor. As anyone should do with a neighbor, he bandaged the Jew then took him to a inn, leaving all his money with the innkeeper and telling him to spend whatever it took to heal the man, and to send the Samaritan the bill if he didn’t leave enough money. This proverb ends with Jesus asking a question. Who of the three were the man’s neighbor? Luke 10:36.

It’s damning to imagine that only 1 of 3 passing Jews stopped to help, and that it was the one who was most despised who did the right thing, yet I’m about to share with you something even more damning about our city, our faith community in particular, and how we are failing to respond to the plight of foster children in our county—we are leaving hundreds of abused and neglected children on the side of the road to fend for themselves.

In Matthew 19:14, Jesus said suffer the little children to come unto me. James 1:27 tells us that “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” Yet, we are facing a foster care crisis in every state of the union, a crisis made worse by the church not stepping up to help these orphans. In Sedgwick County the latest data reveals we have almost 1300 foster children in out of home foster placements, with a total of more than 1600 children subject to child in need of care cases.

These cases are a very small percentage of the reports of abuse and neglect DCF received. Last year there were just over 14,000 DCF intakes with just 600 filed cases. This year we will likely see somewhere between 650 and 700 by the end of December.

While we must remove these kids from parents who abuse and neglect them—they are literally at risk of death in the extreme cases—the system itself without sufficient support from the community traumatizes kids and makes their success as adults—as parents and productive members of the community—far less likely. The overall average out-of-home placement length is 20 months; for reintegration, 10 months; for adoption, 40 months. The average number of different foster homes over a 1,000 day period is 9. That’s 9 different placements for kids who have already been abused, neglected, and traumatized. 90% of the kids in 5 or more placements will be involved in the criminal justice system. 25% of the 11,000 inmates of Kansas prisons and jails were foster kids. 70% of the parents who have their children removed from their homes were also foster kids.

These numbers are depressing. And you might be surprised to learn that they are mostly consistent with most other states. It’s not a Kansas problem, except to say that it is a problem our community and particularly the church has the ability to solve—at least to the extent we step up and care for these children so they aren’t traumatized by a system that is overworked, understaffed, and underfunded.

Remember that 1300 out-of-home placement number. Here’s the tragedy when it comes to how our community and the church are responding to the need to take care of these kids. We only have 800 local foster homes for these children. There are 513,000 residents in Sedgwick County. 79,000 claim to be Catholics. 49,000 claim to be Protestants. Just 1 of 3 Jews stopped to help the fellow Jew on the side of the road. If we assume that the majority of the foster homes we have are from various churches in our city, just 6/10ths of 1% of Sedgwick County Christians are stepping up to help our neglected and abused children. If we don’t make this assumption, the number is even smaller. The church’s philanthropic attitude is far worse today than in biblical times.

In case you’re wondering, the 400 or so kids who can’t be placed locally are sent to homes in other counties, which means they must be transported to Sedgwick County for parental visits, adding hours of travel to the trauma of being removed from their communities of family and friends.

DCF has implemented a matching system that attempts to ideally match children to foster homes according to need, which should decrease the disruption rate and provide more stability to these kids. But with so few foster homes this will do little to help. Only when we have so many foster homes that it’s the foster families on the waiting list and not the children will we diminish this trauma.

We must do as Jesus would have us do. Take care of our orphans. The church must step up. We have approximately 400 churches in Sedgwick County. If we added just one foster family per church we’d have just enough for all out-of-home placements. If 2 per church stepped up, we’d have more than enough.

If your church members don’t have time to foster 24-7, there are other options that have a profound impact on foster care outcomes. Overall, we graduate just 39% of foster kids who age out. You can be a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) volunteer and spend 10-15 hours per month advocating for these kids in court and increase the graduation rate to more than 77%! This also decreases the runaway and recidivism rates. You can also mentor 17-21 year olds as a Youthrive mentor, or even be a Big Brother/Sister. One-on-one relationships make a huge difference in the lives of these kids who often believe no one cares for them.

Stable foster placements, CASAs, and mentoring have a phenomenal impact on foster care outcomes. They help kids reintegrate with their families and, worse case, minimize the trauma when parents can’t become fit and adoption follows. Why? Consider Galatians 5:22-23 “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” Show these kids your spiritual fruits as a foster parent, CASA volunteer, or mentor and they will have something to shoot for when they grow up.

“This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” 1 John 3:16-18.

What if 10% of our local churches stepped up to help these kids as fosters or advocates? 13,000 homes would be available to help 1300 kids. We’d ideally match them with families equipped for their unique needs. Indeed, if just 1% stepped up we’ve have 1300, just enough. Do the math for anywhere in between.

I’d love to share this message with your church. Here’s the most encouraging thing about what I’ve experienced since I started talking about this issue. Last year at this time we only had 700 local placements. That number is more than 800 today. We have foster care training classes going on at City Life Church, Central Christian Church, and various locations throughout our community at any given time. There are also community outreach efforts underway to provide support to foster families as they step up to help these kids. The church is responding but not nearly fast enough or in sufficient numbers. Every time I share this message with a church, people step forward. The problem is getting the message to those who want to help. Invite me to speak at your churches and civic organizations and I’ll drop everything to help these kids. I’ll even bring someone from CASA, a foster care agency or two, and Youthrive so they can answer questions I can’t.

Time to step up church. Let’s save these kids. Please email me at 4acelaw@gmail.com if you’d like me to schedule a presentation at your church or civic organization.

National Adoption Day 2019 was awesome!

Every year Saint Francis Ministries hosts National Adoption Day. Sedgwick County Judges (Judges Rick Macias, Greg Keith, and me) sign adoption orders one after another. Normally, the Child In Need of Care (CINC) dockets, where these cases start, are mostly depressing with abused and neglected children being at the center. Not on this day! This day we finalize adoptions for families who stepped up to care for these kids when they needed love and compassion the most. These are families in every sense of the word, and the sacrificial love shines through in the faces of the adoptive parents and their families and extended families who come with them for the ceremonies.

Thanks to Susan Peters of KSN who emceed the event. She does great work with her Susan’s Kids ministry. Indeed, during last week’s CINC docket in my court, I learned that her broadcast resulted in one of my kids getting two possible adoptive resources, which is truly amazing. Thank you Susan for all your efforts to help these kids.

But our work is far from done. I preached to many of the families of the need for more foster parents, CASA volunteers and mentors–preaching to the choir. Nonetheless, the need is great. Please email me if you have a church or civic group that needs to hear about the foster care crisis and what they can do to help, 4acelaw@gmail.com.

There’s one thing that I emphasized during these ceremonies that can’t be denied. Even though the system takes too long to achieve permanency for these kids, the ones adopted Saturday had no idea what their new parents had gone through. They’d been living with their forever homes for months if not years. They didn’t know how messed up the system is. They’ve been loved for a long time and that’s because their new parents stepped to (1) foster them, then (2) adopt them. You’re missing lots of love if you don’t step up too.

Blessings and Happy National Adoption Day!

CCAI Angels in Adoption Honoree Events were awesome and inspiring!

Last week my wife and I went to Washington D.C. to accept the Angels in Adoption honor from Senator Pat Roberts, and attend the annual Angels Gala. It was inspiring to hear stories from people all over the country who are equally committed to helping foster parents meet the needs of the most neglected members of our communities. It was also reinvigorating to hear that many are putting together coalitions in their communities very similar to what Dr. Rebecca Reddy and other foster advocates in Wichita are working on forming here, a process I’m happy to be a part of.

I’ve said this numerous times at churches and civic organizations throughout Wichita and Sedgwick County. Government won’t cure this problem any time soon. If we want quick change and to meet these kids’ needs now, we need more foster parents, greater community support for fosters and the kids, more CASA volunteers, and more mentors. That falls squarely on the shoulders of Sedgwick County citizens not lawmakers in Topeka. Sure, we do need more support from Topeka, but who knows when that formula will be cracked. Now and in the foreseeable future, we can help foster kids by making them part of our lives.

I received updated data yesterday. We have 1,269 kids in out of home placements in Sedgwick County and 409 must be shipped out of county. The out-of-county number is a little better (about 100 better), but it’s still pitifully short. We need so many foster families that they not the children have to wait for placement. Can’t ideally match them if we keep treading water, and ideally matching is the key to reducing disruptions.

Email me if you’d like me to present the foster care crisis to your church or civic organizations. 4acelaw@gmail.com.

Campaign update and what you can do to help

I updated the website, http://www.kevin4judge.com, so please check it out. You’ll find links to Kansans for Life, which endorsed me in 2016 (2020 election endorsements won’t be issued until Spring 2020), and the local Fraternal Order of Police Chapter, which already endorsed me for the 2020 election.

You’ll also find a few articles on what we’ve been doing to increase foster care awareness as well as a link to the KC Star’s op-ed on juvenile justice reform. The Eagle published it too but it never popped up online. Please read it and, if you agree, contact your legislator and let him or her know how you feel about this very important issue.

Although I will personally participate in a couple upcoming parades with my friends at Republican Women United, I won’t be doing much parade work where I need supporters until Spring 2020. Please let me know if you’re willing to march with me so I know how many T-shirts to order.

It’s not actual campaign activity, so please make sure they understand this, but I’m also always willing to present the foster care issue to churches and civic organizations. I present the depressing data as well as outreach opportunities such as fostering, CASA advocacy, and mentoring. It makes a difference in the lives of at least those kids who are blessed to get support from these organizations.

I will present a foster care update at the KFL Hour for Life on December 3rd, 7 pm, 3301 W. 13th St. N., Wichita, KS 67203. It’s an open meeting and I’d love to see you there. Bring your pastor so he or she can see why the church is so important in helping these kids.

Finally, when you review the website you’ll notice a donations button. Campaigns are expensive. We appreciate anything you can do to help. While I’m hopeful that no one will run against me, the best way to keep that from happening is to show would-be challengers that we’re prepared to meet the financial challenges–mailings, brochures, TV ads, social media ads–that contested campaigns bring with them.