The Kansas Department for Children and Families announced major changes to its standards for substantiating child abuse Tuesday. But lawmakers want more reform of a privatized foster care system they say is failing to protect children.
DCF Secretary Phyllis Gilmore announced that the agency will begin using a “preponderance of the evidence” as the standard for substantiating a child abuse claim rather than the more stringent “clear and convincing evidence.”
Gilmore noted that Kansas is the only state using the “clear and convincing evidence” standard. The change will make it easier for state investigators to place people suspected of child abuse on a registry that prohibits their employment at child care facilities.
The agency also added a category between unsubstantiated and substantiated — “affirmed” — that will describe cases in which abuse or neglect are believed to have happened but not to a level severe enough to bring a substantiated finding.
Prosecutors seeking to bring criminal abuse charges still will have to prove guilt beyond a “reasonable doubt,” and only judges can remove the custody rights of children’s legal guardians.
The changes were announced during a hearing of a special legislative committee formed to vet the state’s foster care system.
The Capital-Journal’s reporting focused on Mekhi Boone, a 4-year-old Hiawatha boy who was beaten to death after DCF and one of the state’s foster care contractors placed him with his father.
Kaddillak Poe-Jones, a Wichita infant who died in a hot car after the foster parents she was placed with forgot her, also was mentioned in Tuesday’s hearing.
Privatized system questioned
After Gilmore’s announcement, legislators suggested the foster care system still needs a deeper look.
Democrats pushed for an audit of the system in July, but it narrowly failed when five Republicans voted it down. At Tuesday’s hearing, though, the majority party members expressed serious concerns as well.
“The kind of system we’ve created isn’t working,” said Sen. Julia Lynn, a Republican from Olathe.
The foster care system has been privatized since 1997, and DCF now works with two contractors, KVC Behavioral Healthcare of Olathe and St. Francis Community Services of Salina. A subcontractor, Topeka-based TFI, handled Kaddillak’s case, and DCF briefly halted new foster care placements with that agency after her death last year.
In recent years the state has consistently set records for the number of Kansas children in foster care, topping 6,000 last year.
Rep. Willie Dove, a Republican from Bonner Springs, expressed concerns that the numbers continue to burgeon under the privatized system.
Lynn said she requested information from staff about the cost to dismantle the system and have the state take over again but was told it was difficult to calculate because the Legislature never fully funded it prior to privatization.
The state currently pays the contractors about $280 million annually.
Lynn said the current contracts should be heavily scrutinized before they expire in 2017. Whether DCF stays with the current companies or enlists others, she said the next contracts should require more accountability.
“We need to have in place measurables for our contractors,” Lynn said.
State agency also scrutinized
DCF also faced scrutiny from legislators and law enforcement officials as the state agency that oversees the contractors.
Rep. Erin Davis, a Republican from Olathe, expressed concerns that the state was not doing enough to track the school attendance of foster children.
Ed Klumpp, a lobbyist who represents several law enforcement groups, said local police and county sheriffs get little help from DCF on calls involving foster children — especially after hours.
A phone line that is supposed to be staffed 24 hours a day is frequently not answered late at night, he said, and even when it is, the help that can be provided outside the Topeka area is minimal.
“When you go into a law enforcement conference and mention the DCF hotline, eyes roll,” Klumpp said. “We’ve got to fix it.”
He said more foster parents need to be trained in de-escalation and conflict resolution techniques, so police are called in less frequently.
Gilmore said her agency is short on trained social workers.
“We continue to have issues of both recruitment and retention,” Gilmore said.
Lynn said blame should extend to the legislative branch as well, telling the committee that the Legislature had “lost a collective will” to protect the “weakest of the weak” in the state.
Her comments were echoed by Rep. Mike Kiegerl, another Olathe Republican, who submitted written remarks.
Kiegerl criticized legislative leaders for granting the special foster care committee only one day of hearings, after its members requested five days.
“Children are not a legislative priority,” Kiegerl said, “and this committee faces an impossible task to find solutions to intractable, long-term problems which finally culminated in the horrendous death of two children.”
Andy Marso is a reporter for KHI News Service in Topeka, a partner in the Heartland Health Monitor team. You can reach him on Twitter @andymarso