Stop whining about DCF and do something to help foster kids NOW!

I just submitted the following article to the Wichita Eagle. Please read it and then do what you can to help these kids. I’ll let Kelsie know she might get a few phone calls soon.

1CE98EA2-91AE-4027-BE96-14959A3EE6B470% of the men and women in America’s prisons and jails were in foster care. Regardless of what Kansas media tells you, and what lawyers claim in pending lawsuits, Kansas’s foster care woes aren’t unique. They are endemic in the foster care system nationwide. Indeed, by almost all measurements, the Kansas foster case system is average. Average case lengths, average case outcomes, and sadly, average success rates for kids who grow up and end up in prison. Can we agree that average sucks? Because of this reality, no matter who is in charge of Kansas DCF, it will take years not months to fix the system, if fixing it is even possible. 

As one of four judges in the highest volume Child In Need of Care (CINC) court in Kansas, I see the fallout of bad parenting daily. I also see how overworked the caseworkers are, and the impact of poorly managed case plans on the kids. It’s tragic even if average. It’s also unacceptable. But here’s the truth: foster kids don’t have to know how messed up the system is while we implement positive changes to eventually fix it. Above average states have embraced community-based efforts to ensure that kids are cared for as they wait for parents to beat drug addiction issues and other behavioral problems that make it impossible for them to parent. These efforts include more local foster homes, enough Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) volunteers for every child, and mentoring programs with successful citizens helping guide children down paths of success now and into adulthood. 

4E1A577A-5F65-4B52-9EEF-D7F823E9F4BASedgwick County has organizations in place to meet these needs. Sadly, they don’t have adequate community support to help all foster kids. This is your fault. It’s my fault. It’s everyone’s fault. And here’s the full impact of this deficit of love and caring in our community. When I see cases with active, loving foster parents and similarly involved CASA volunteers, kids succeed and aren’t just “average” statistics. Indeed, kids who don’t have CASAs graduate high school just 50% of the time; kids with CASAs have an 80%-plus graduation rate! When good people don’t foster or advocate for kids, the kids become victims of average outcomes instead of benefiting from far above average results. 

We lack enough local foster homes for these kids. The impact of this is cataclysmic. The average number of foster placements for Kansas foster kids in the system for 24 months is just over 5. Each time they are moved to a new home, they are figuratively told the previous family doesn’t want them. They are abandoned by their own families at least once, then four more times while in foster care. When we lack enough local placements, they’re often placed two or more hours away from their home counties. When this happens, add the trauma of sitting in the back of a car four or more hours a day, at least once per week, to see parents for just an hour at a time. If something happens to prevent the parent from seeing his or her child, that’s disappointment to go with the stress of sitting in a car for hours at a time. 

We have several private foster care providers in Sedgwick County. The ones I most often deal with are EmberHope, Salvation Army, DCCCA, KVC, and Saint Francis Ministries. They are desperate for more foster parents. No one who passes a background check will be turned away. In my ideal CINC world, so many citizens would be volunteering that there’d be a waiting list. We are far from this level of community support, and that’s a shame.

If you don’t have a home conducive to fostering, or the time to give 24-7, there are other impactful options you can pursue. I already mentioned the impact of CASA volunteers (CASA of Sedgwick County is our local CASA provider). I love my CASAs. They keep an eye on the cases and help me to hold caseworkers, parents, and fosters accountable. Those ideal states I mentioned have so much community support that every kid gets a CASA and businesses and individuals financially fund the programs. Last year we could only appoint CASAs on 145 of almost 600 new CINC cases. We also average about 1400 out of home placements per month, so we are actually short about 1000 CASAs! That’s appalling. I know we can do better. CASAs put in from 5-10 hours a month and they only advocate for one kid or family of kids, yet they dramatically reduce recidivism and runaway rates, and increase graduation rates to above USD 259’s overall graduation rate. That’s awesome.

Last year we added Youthrive to our foster care toolbox. When kids can’t reintegrate with families or be adopted to new families, the case plan changes to independent living. These kids will be adults and have to fend for themselves someday, even if they come from families that never did so successfully. Youthrive assigns mentors to help these transitioning kids tap into resources and obtain things they need to be productive adults such as driver’s licenses, and education and job opportunities. As with CASA, we don’t a have a tenth of the mentors we need to help all these kids. Sad.

There’s also local organizations such as Big Brothers/Big Sisters, and Youth Horizons that offer mentoring services for all kids and not just those stuck in the foster care system. 

FADB15EC-17A4-43B6-BCD8-8428289AE2C1We cannot fix the foster care system overnight, but we can dramatically improve outcomes for the kids immediately by doing more than gripe and complaint about the system. We can step up and make a difference now by fostering kids, advocating for them as CASAs, and mentoring them as Youthrive, Youth Horizons, and Big Brother/Big Sister mentors. I’ve been presenting the foster care problem and volunteer opportunities to churches and civics organizations for the past couple years. Every time I’m humbled by the response—dozens of people have stepped forward to get involved. I would love to present to your church or group. Please contact me so we can set something up soon. These kids are in crisis. Every moment we wait for the government to fix this mess means more kids will be lost to the average statistics. 

Call my Administrative Assistant, Kelsie Voss, at 316-660-5612 to set up a presentation. I will skip church, get up early for breakfast meetings, and present late into the evening if it means helping these kids, but I can’t do anything without your help.

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National Adoption Day at Exploration Place was awesome, but you don’t have to adopt to impact foster kids’ lives!

I read a couple articles in the Eagle about National Adoption Day celebrated at Exploration Place yesterday. The coverage was decent, but it was weak in one sense. The coverage should have ended with telling the Eagle’s readers what they can do to C6B95AD6-DFC0-44A7-AA45-30FAA4A3D68Chelp foster kids. Here’s why.

Last year we averaged around 1200 kids in out of home placements each month in the Wichita Region—not new fosters, the overall average. This year that number is around 1400. I have one of the busier dockets in Sedgwick County, and Sedgwick County has the largest number of new filings in the state, so I have a good perspective in this issue.

The problem is that we do not have enough local foster families to take care of these kids. Indeed, sometimes we don’t have any immediate placements so they must stay in contractors’ offices for multiple nights, sleeping on cots. Granted, sometimes these kids have behavior issues and might even pose a danger to the families that take them in, but this is rare. Mostly it’s simply a matter of not enough 0E277593-CEFF-46BD-AECD-71F53B4AA2AChomes in Wichita. This is really a problem with families of 3 or more kids, with one or more having health issues that need attention. When this happens, siblings are split up and some are placed an hour or more away from here, with two or more hours not being rare. This makes it difficult for parents to keep up regular visitation schedules, and traumatizes kids who have to spend several hours in caseworkers’ cars traveling to and from visits. It’s even worse when they travel for two or more hours then have parents cancel visits. You can imagine what the kids go through when this happens.

“Mom must not love me or she’d be here.”

The reality is that sometimes employers threaten the parents with termination if they leave work for visits, so sometimes they have to decide whether losing their jobs, which the court ordered them to retain, or missing a visit, also court ordered, is priority. This isn’t as big an issue if the kids are placed locally—they can reschedule visits or sometimes have more than one visit a week. So if you are called to foster, to give time 24-7 to these kids, don’t wait. We have several providers in Sedgwick County such as EmberHope, DCCCA, Salvation Army, and Saint Francis Ministries.

The article also left out other, less time consuming options for concerned citizens. You can volunteer as a Court Appointed Special Advocate or Youthrive mentor. As a CASA volunteer or Youthrive mentor, you walk beside the kids and make sure all those involved are looking out for the children’s best interests, and are complying with court orders to ensure permanancy for these kids sooner rather than later. As for CASA, one impact that stands out is on these troubled kids’ high school graduation rates. Without a CASA, it’s just 50%; with a CASA, its over 80%!

1CE98EA2-91AE-4027-BE96-14959A3EE6B4Finalizing through adoption is fantastic. But that’s just 30% of the case outcomes for foster care. It’s the 70% that needs the most attention, the kids who face much of the bad consequences of spending all or part of their lives in foster care. It’s not a coincidence that 80% of the men and women incarcerated in our nation’s prisons and jails were fosters. You can impact these kids by stepping forward and giving them a stable home to live in while they are in foster care (in Kansas, the average number of placements for foster kids in 24 months is just over 5!), mentor them as a CASA or Youthrive advocate, and perhaps be willing to adopt if the opportunity arises.

I’d love to talk to your civic organization or church about volunteer opportunities in the foster care system. You and your friends can make a huge impact in these kids’ lives. Email me at 4acelaw@sbcglobal.net if you’d like be to present at your group, or send my contact info to your pastor or group leader.

Everyone needs to help Kansas foster kids, especially you!

A couple weeks after my mission to observe Florida dependency courts, the momentum to improve the Kansas foster care system is not abating. I immediately implemented changes on my docket to improve the timeline for permanency for my kids, and DCF is responding. Last week we met with a couple DCF representatives and they shared with us their improved timeline for adoption finalizations. I’m greatly encouraged that DCF is following up our Florida discovery that Kansas can improve its outcomes with action!

But here’s the reality. Bureaucratic changes take time. Lots of time. I seriously doubt even the latest momentum will be noticeable on case outcomes until a good year or more down the line, and if we see a change in political party occupying the Kansas Governor’s mansion next week, the momentum might stop dead in its tracks. Thus, I’m compelled to get back to what I’ve been saying and seeing for my entire career on the bench. YOU ARE THE SOLUTION TO THE KANSAS FOSTER CARE CRISIS!

Group Of Young Children Running Towards Camera In ParkWe need good families fostering these kids. We need good people serving as CASA volunteers to advocate for these kids. We need more Youth Horizons mentors, and Youthrive mentors for kids who age out of the foster care system. We don’t need new DCF policies to improve foster care outcomes next week or even next month. We need more people like you.

Here’s my ask of you. You probably belong to a church or civic organization. I’ve been presenting foster care to community groups the past couple of years and they always respond with love and caring by volunteering and supporting great organizations that help kids daily. Why hasn’t your group called? Talk to your pastor or leader of your group. Tell them I’m ready, willing, and able to talk to your group.

Good news is that the community group support for kids is growing too. I’m already scheduled to either present or help pastors present foster care volunteer opportunities two weekends in January (the 5th and 12th), as well as a civic group on the 17th.

70% of all men and women incarcerated in our jails and prisons were in foster care as children. Had they had good people like you fostering or advocating for them as kids they might have turned into productive, authority-respecting citizens with powerful testimonies about how someone loved them so much that they gave their time as foster parents or advocated for them in court.

Please email me at ksmith@dc18.org if you would like me to talk to your pastor or leader of a civic group about how he or she can help get the word out.