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.

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