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Kansas foster care monitor called a success in first year with room for improvement

 Kerrie Lonard, the state’s child advocate, speaks to legislators on Wednesday.
Blaise Mesa
Kansas News Service
Kerrie Lonard, the state’s child advocate, speaks to legislators on Wednesday.

The Division of the Child Advocate was established in October 2021 as an ombudsman's office with special attention to the cases of foster children. The office started investigating complaints last year.

TOPEKA, Kansas — Stacy Crow was a foster parent trying to adopt a child she was caring for.

But her effort to give that child a forever family ran into maddening complications — questions raised about why a child kept falling that were sorted out with a doctor’s exam that revealed a crooked spine.

After sinking $30,000 in legal fees, the adoption went through. Crow credits the relatively young Division of the Child Advocate for helping her fight through conflicts with the Kansas foster care system.

“The joy that comes from having a child advocate is that it proved we did nothing wrong,” she said. “We were the people that we said we were. That we’re loving these children, taking care of these children – we weren’t monsters, we weren’t the evil ones trying to destroy anybody or hurt anybody.”

The Division of the Child Advocate formed in October 2021 as a watchdog agency trained on the Kansas foster care system. It celebrates about one year of officially taking complaints and released its annual report in January. Kerrie Lonard, the state’s child advocate, presented those findings to legislators on Wednesday.

Advocacy groups, foster families and legislators widely describe that first year as a success. The agency fields complaints about how the state handles foster cases. Finally, people had an agency to go to when they clashed with the Department for Children and Families.

But the new office is still finding its footing at a time when burned-out foster parents are leaving in droves. And like the system the ombudsman oversees, the child advocate gets its own criticism.

“You’re in over your head,” said foster parent Devona Young.

Young called the office for help. She said the agency is well-intentioned, but needs more staff, faster response times and said the foster system has so many struggles she can’t see how it can keep up.

On top of investigating cases, the DCA is taking point on a former foster parent survey because 500 foster families opted not to renew their licenses. Kansas is also still working through a lawsuit settlement after the system moved kids so often they were essentially homeless. Progress reports from the settlement have mixed results.

“I’ve worked as a case manager, I have been a foster parent (and) I grew up in the system,” Young said. “The only way change is going to come … is basically to scratch it and start over.”

She said foster families have heard promises of change that never came. Young worries the division could be another example of that, though she says the office is needed.

Two foster parents who talked to the Kansas News Service worry it is handcuffed by what it is and isn’t allowed to do.

It isn’t uncommon for foster parents to call for the firing of a social worker or ask that a state contractor lose its contract. Foster parents even want some court rulings changed, but Lonard has the power to do none of that — and even some ardent supporters of foster care reform agree it is best that way.

Yet Lonard said her office can build credibility through neutrality by staying clear-eyed and advocating for children rather than DCF, biological families or foster parents.

“If we can be just one piece of that puzzle, then we want to try to do that,” Lonard said. “If that means bringing voice to individuals who may not have felt that their voice was being heard in other avenues, then we hope to do that.”

Despite the criticism, the office has received praise.

The most recent annual report gave Kansans the deepest look into investigations of the state’s foster care system. In that report, the DCA highlighted recurring complaints about accountability, court practices, labor shortages and parents’ rights.

The report confirms what long-suffering families and advocates for foster kids have been saying, that foster care in Kansas needs change. Confirmed complaints in the report are accompanied by a response from the responsible agency, oftentimes discussing what to do to prevent a particular problem from happening again.

In one case, the division made one of the private foster care agencies hired by the state answer for inaccurate court documents. In another, the Department for Children and Families responded to concerns about systemic barriers to returning foster children to their biological parents.

Multiple foster and biological parents told the Kansas News Service that just hearing back about their complaints from any child welfare agency is difficult.

“The number of times that I’ve heard a parent on the other end of the phone say, ‘I’m just happy because you’re the first person that’s called me back,’ is crazy,” said Mike Fonkert, campaign director with Kansas Appleseed.

The findings in the report echoed what Kansas Appleseed has heard for years.

“It is satisfying … to now see on paper, in a tracked way, from a government entity, all of the things that we had been hearing for years,” Fonkert said. “I really look forward to the trajectory of this office. I can't even wrap my head around what Year Two might look like.”

Lonard said the agency wants to speed its response to complaints. The agency is ramping up a new case management system. She also said the number of complaints seemed small compared to the total number of people involved in child welfare, possibly due to the office being so new not everyone has heard of it.

“Whether it’s foster parents with family members or youth themselves, we want them to know that their experience and their voice is important to us,” she said.

Blaise Mesa reports on criminal justice and social services for the Kansas News Service in Topeka. You can follow him on Twitter @Blaise_Mesa or email him at blaise@kcur.org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. 

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Copyright 2023 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.

Blaise Mesa