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Kansas Custody Tracking Called First Year Success With Room For Improvement | CUR 89.3

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

But her efforts to give that child a forever family ran into maddening complications: questions raised about why a child kept falling over that were resolved with a medical 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 with helping her battle conflicts with the Kansas foster care system.

“The joy that comes from having a child advocate is that he proved we did nothing wrong,” she said. “We were the people we said we were. That we love these children, that we care for these children – we weren’t monsters, we weren’t the bad guys trying to destroy or hurt anyone.”

The Division of the Child Advocate formed in October 2021 as a trained oversight agency on the Kansas foster care system. It celebrates about a year since the claims were officially accepted and released its annual report in January. Kerrie Lonard, the state’s children’s advocate, presented the findings to lawmakers on Wednesday.

Advocacy groups, foster families, and lawmakers widely describe that first year as a success. The agency files complaints about how the state handles foster cases. Ultimately, people had an agency to turn to when they ran afoul of the Department of Children and Family.

But the new office is still finding its footing at a time when depleted foster parents are leaving in droves. And like the system that the ombudsman oversees, the juvenile advocate also receives its criticisms.

“You’re out of your mind,” adoptive parent Devona Young said.

Young called the office for help. He said the agency is well meaning, but needs more staff, faster response times and said the foster care system is in so much trouble that he can’t see how he can keep up.

In addition to investigating the cases, the DCA is considering an earlier survey of foster parents because 500 foster families chose not to renew their licenses. Even Kansas is still working on a legal settlement after the system moved children so often that they were essentially homeless. Reports on the progress of the settlement have mixed results.

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

She said foster families have heard promises of change that never came. Young fears the division may be another example of this, even as he says the office is needed.

Two adoptive parents who spoke to the Kansas News Service fear he is handcuffed about what he is and isn’t allowed to do.

It is not uncommon for adoptive parents to apply for a social worker to be fired or ask a state contractor to terminate the contract. The adoptive parents even want some court rulings reversed, but Lonard has the power to do none of that — and even some ardent supporters of custody reform agree it’s for the best.

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

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

Despite the criticisms, the office has received praise.

The most recent annual report provided the Kansans with a deeper look into the investigation into the state foster care system. In that report, DCA highlighted recurring complaints about liability, court practices, labor shortages, and parental rights.

The report confirms what longtime families and advocates for adopted children have said, which is that foster care in Kansas is in need of a change. Complaints confirmed in the report are accompanied by a response from the responsible agency, which often discusses what to do to prevent a particular problem from happening again.

In one case, the division held one of the private fostering agencies hired by the state to answer for wrongful court records. In another, the Department of Children and Families addressed concerns about systemic barriers to the return of adopted children to their biological parents.

Multiple adoptive and biological parents told the Kansas News Service that just hearing their grievances from any child welfare agency is difficult.

“The number of times I’ve heard a parent on the other end of the phone say, ‘I’m just happy because you’re the first person to call me back’ is insane,” said Mike Fonkert, apple pied campaign manager at the Kansas.

The report’s findings echo what Kansas Appleseed has heard for years.

“It’s satisfying … to see now on paper, mapped out, by a government agency, all the things we’ve been hearing for years,” Fonkert said. “I’m really looking forward to the trajectory of this office. I can’t even fathom what sophomore year could be like.

Lonard said the agency wants to expedite its response to complaints. The agency is developing a new case management system. He also said the number of complaints seemed small compared to the total number of people involved in childcare, likely because the office is so new that not everyone has heard of it.

“Whether it’s foster parents with family members or young people themselves, we want them to know that their experience and voice are 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 [email protected].

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 free of charge by the news media with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

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