Kansas foster care system to get federal court mandated overhaul

Published: Jan. 23, 2021 at 1:19 PM CST
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KANSAS CITY, Kan. (WIBW) - The Kansas foster care system will soon see some dramatic changes regarding housing and mental health of children in state care.

Kansas Appleseed says on Friday, a federal judge indicated that he plans to approve a settlement agreement between attorneys that represent almost 7,000 children in foster care and Kansas state officials. It said order of approval is expected to be issued in the week of Jan. 25.

According to the organization, the settlement will bring transformative structural changes to the state’s broken welfare system by ending extreme placement instability and ensuring that children get the mental health care they need. It said for years, children in foster care have been traumatized by the system that was meant to protect them, lacking access to mental health resources and bouncing from home to home, some moving up to as many as 100 times.

“The settlement is the first step in ensuring children in foster care do not just survive the trauma they’ve experienced but thrive,” Larry Rute, plaintiff co-counsel, said. “While it won’t happen immediately, these changes will help ensure children in foster care are treated with the dignity and respect they deserve and don’t become a statistic in the tragic foster care to prison pipeline, become homeless, or suffer from severe persistent mental illness.”

Kansas Appleseed said Friday’s approval hearing was the last step before moving toward implementation of key practice reforms and benchmarks that will begin immediately and are required to be met at intervals over the next three to four years. It said an independent neutral consultant will review, validate and report on Defendants’ performance and progress in reaching the settlement obligations.

According to Kansas Appleseed, the settlement is the result of the class action suit M.B. v Howard (originally M.B. v Colyer) that was filed in November of 2018. It said the plaintiff co-counsel team includes the Kansas Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, Kansas attorney and Child Welfare Specialists Lori Burns-Bucklew, the National Center for Youth Law, Children’s Rights and the global law firm DLA Piper. Defendants in the settlement are Secretary Laura Howard of the Kansas Department for Children and Families and the Kansas Department of Aging and Disability Services as well as Secretary Dr. Lee A. Norman of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

“All children in foster care have the right to a stable, caring home where their mental health care needs are met, and our settlement agreement finally moves Kansas in that direction,” Leecia Welch, plaintiff co-counsel and Senior Director at the National Center for Youth Law, said. “This lawsuit is not only a win for the children in foster care now, but a win for all children who will ever enter state care in Kansas.”

Kansas Appleseed said the settlement requires structural changes and measurable outcomes that are all directed to improve housing stability and mental health supports for children in DCF care. It said key reforms are as follows:

  • Practice Improvements - The settlement mandates five areas of practice changes that state agencies must reach for a 12-month period and then hold for another 12 month period in order to exit court oversight. It said these include:
    • Ending the practice of housing children in unsuitable places like offices and hotels
    • Ending the practice of night-to-night short term placements
    • Ensuring placements are not overcrowded and do not exceed the licensed capacity
    • Ending housing-related delays in the provision of mental health services
    • Providing crisis intervention services for children
  • Outcomes - The settlement requires five measurable outcome improvements for children, phased in over 3-4 year periods. When state agencies reach the final target outcome after phasing it in, they must then hold it for another 12 months to exit court oversight. It said these include:
    • Achieving a low average rate of placement moves, around 4.4 moves or less per 1,000 days in care
    • Addressing mental health and behavioral health treatment needs for at least 90% of children
    • Ensuring current placements are stable for at least 90% of children
    • Limiting placement changes to one move over 12 months for at least 90% of children
    • Providing an initial mental health and trauma screening within the first 30 days of entering state care for at least 90% of children
  • Federal Court Enforceability - If approved, the settlement is a fully enforceable federal court order that is binding on DCF, the KDHE and KDADS, as well as all current and future officials of these agencies.
  • Contract Oversight - The settlement is binding whether performance is by the state agencies or any providers contracted by agencies or other agreements with the state and the obligations of the settlement will become part of all contracts.
  • Neutral Expert Validating Performance - The settlement appoints Judith Meltzer and the Center for the Study of Social Policy, a highly respected child welfare policy group, to independently validate Kansas’ performance.
  • New Community Accountability Structure - The settlement requires a new independent advisory group, heavy on stakeholders outside of state agencies, like providers, parents and youth. It said the group can make public recommendations for change and the state agencies must respond in writing to all recommendations.

For more information regarding the lawsuit, click here.

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