The news that more than 70 children are missing from the Kansas foster care system is the latest in a string of concerns for lawmakers and child welfare advocates.
Concern for the safety of children, heavy caseloads for social workers and a lack of coordination in the system prompted lawmakers earlier this year to form the Child Welfare Task Force, which heard about the missing children during a meeting Tuesday in Topeka.
The foster care system, overseen by the Kansas Department for Children and Families, was privatized 20 years ago after it failed court-ordered reviews. Care is now overseen by two contractors: St. Francis Community Services in western Kansas, and KVC Health Systems in eastern Kansas.
The task force raised concerns Tuesday about missing children in response to a Kansas City Star article about three sisters who have been missing from their foster home in Tonganoxie since late August.
The girls, all under age 16, were part of KVC’s caseload, and are among 37 children the contractor said were missing as of Wednesday. The Star heard about their disappearance from their foster parent and great aunt, Debbie Miller, who hasn’t seen sisters Emily, Aimee and Christin Utter since Aug. 26.
State Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat, said it was “very concerning” that the Tonganoxie sisters had been missing for almost two months. But Kelly said she was more alarmed that DCF Secretary Phyllis Gilmore hadn’t heard about the girls when Kelly brought it to her attention Tuesday.
“She’s responsible for these kids,” Kelly said. “They are wards of the state, and she’s in charge of that agency. So the fact that she knew nothing about these missing girls is of great concern to me.”
In a Wednesday interview, House Minority Leader Jim Ward expressed exasperation with the Kansas foster care system and its issues, some of which have led to child endangerment and even the deaths of children in care.
“If this was a single event, I would be more willing to listen,” Ward said. “But this is on top of last [month’s] revelation that some foster care kids were sleeping in offices … this is just absolutely unconscionable.”
Ward went even further, reiterating past calls for Gilmore to be removed as head of DCF.
“I’ve been calling for her to be gone for two years, and renew that call today,” he said.
The number of missing Kansas foster care children represents about 1 percent of those in the state’s system.
Jenny Kutz, KVC communications director, said kids who go missing from its care are found within two weeks on average, with many returned to their care within days. However, one teenager has been missing for more than two years.
Janis Friesen, a communications consultant for St. Francis, did not specify how long children in its care are missing, but she noted that teens reported missing are located quickly “in many instances.” She said children ages 12 and older make up 92 percent of the kids missing statewide.
DCF issued a news release Wednesday outlining its protocol for missing and runaway foster children.
According to DCF protocol, contractors are required to notify the department and appropriate law enforcement agency of a missing child within two hours. By the next workday, the contractor has to communicate what they know about the incident to DCF.
“We made the decision to highlight the protocol for handling situations involving runaways and missing children because of questions that arose during the final minutes of the Child Welfare System Task Force meeting on Tuesday,” Gilmore said in the release. “We want to assure the public that protocols are in place, and have been for many years, to ensure that when children run away from their foster care placement, every effort is made to locate them and return them to a safe and appropriate foster care home or facility.”
Serena Hawkins, a guardian ad litem and task force member, said children often run back to their previous home.
“A lot of the time these children have returned to their biological families, and they are being sheltered by these families to prevent them from being removed from DCF again,” she told task force members.
However, running away to return to families is still cause for concern, as 61 percent of the kids removed from their homes in fiscal year 2016 were removed because of abuse or neglect, ranging from physical and sexual abuse to a lack of supervision or abandonment. An additional 16 percent were removed due to a parent’s substance abuse.
More kids coming into the system
State officials say the problems in the foster care system are not unique to Kansas.
The number of children in foster care nationwide increased every year from 2012 to 2015, the last year for which national data is available. Thirty-five states, including Kansas, saw an increase in the number of children in their foster care systems during that period.
Kansas lawmakers are not sure why the number of kids in the system is increasing, but several noted the national opioid epidemic could be one factor, as children are removed from the care of opioid-addicted parents.
The climbing numbers are adding stress to the Kansas system, which has not been able to add enough new foster families to keep up.
One consequence of this increase has been made visible in the couches and makeshift beds set up in contractors’ offices.
At last month’s task force meeting, lawmakers learned more than 100 children in the foster care system had to spend the night in offices instead of homes in the last year when other facilities were not available to immediately take them.
This happens all over the country, Kutz said, and has been a growing problem in Kansas as the state has seen a steady increase in the number of kids in care in recent years. She said KVC sees an average of five kids sleeping in offices each month, with a high of 15 in June. In 19 instances this year, kids have spent multiple nights in offices.
In response, KVC is opening short-term children’s crisis centers to provide temporary beds for kids who would otherwise be stuck in offices. Kutz said KVC opened beds in Hays and plans to open a crisis center with up to 20 beds in Kansas City, Kansas, in January. KVC is considering a third center in Wichita.
Friesen did not say how many children St. Francis had staying in its offices this year, but she did say the placement process can be prolonged for older youth with behavioral issues, many of whom then spend the night in the contractor’s offices. She said St. Francis is seeing an increase in harder-to-place children.
The task force, which has met three times, is examining issues with the foster care system more broadly, looking at how DCF oversees foster care, integration and adoption. Rep. Linda Gallagher, a Lenexa Republican, said she expects the issue of missing kids to come up again, along with worker caseloads and other consequences of increased numbers of kids.
The task force will meet twice more before putting out its preliminary findings in January 2018. Its final recommendations will be issued a year later.
“My intent and my hope is that the task force will identify where the problems are, where the balls are being dropped, and where children are falling through the cracks,” Gallagher said.
Madeline Fox is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio, KCUR and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach her on Twitter @maddycfox.