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Dec. 1, 2009
TOPEKA A key member of the Joint Committee on Children’s Issues wants to fine contractors caught lying or telling half-truths in foster care hearings.
“We have the laws, but I see them being ignored,” said Rep. Bill Otto, R-LeRoy. “Totally ignored.”
Otto said he’s heard too many stories of vindictive social workers working for the contractors who mislead judges about parents’ and grandparents’ abilities to care for their children and grandchildren.
“There needs to be some teeth put in the law,” Otto said during the committee’s meeting Tuesday. He proposed fining contractors $10,000 for each infraction.
Kansas privatized its foster care services in 1996. It now contracts with four non-profit agencies:
• TFI Family Services,
• St. Francis Community Services,
• Youthville, and
• KVC Behavioral Health Care.
Earlier, committee members heard several parents and grandparents describe how contractor social workers had derailed their efforts to regain custody of their children and grandchildren.
The committee’s chairman, Rep. Mike Kiegerl, R-Olathe, said he had little doubt that on some occasions, contractors had wielded “Gestapo-like powers.”
Kiegerl said he’s likely to introduce legislation aimed at:
• Giving judges authority to decide where a child in state custody will be placed. Currently, judges are limited to deciding where children will not be placed; placement decisions are left up to the contractors.
• Increasing state-funded support for grandparents caring for grandchildren who otherwise would be in foster care.
• Doing more to protect the rights of families whose children are in state custody.
• Requiring better communication between the contractor and parents whose children are in foster care.
On several occasions, Otto said he found it hard to believe that a parent who had not been convicted of a crime could have their parental rights severed.
“I find that absolutely shocking,” he said. Otto said he’d had a niece in foster care.
Committee members spent much of the morning listening to family law attorneys Jean Ann Uvodich and Erna Loomis. Both told stories of clients — parents or grandparents, usually — who had been abused by the system.
Loomis, who is Kiegerl’s daughter, said that parents and grandparents are not allowed to see court-ordered assessments of their abilities to care for their children and grandchildren. Many times, she said, the assessments contain inaccuracies that work against the parents or grandparents.
Loomis also said she’s often told the contractors lack the resources they need to provide much-needed therapy for children who’ve been separated from their families.
“I hear that and then I look and see how much is being spent on the contracts,” Loomis said. “The money is there, it’s just not being spent on the children.”
The Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services spends about $150 million a year on foster care, family preservation, and adoption services.
Uvodich said she once had a case in which a social worker testified that a father who was trying to regain custody of his child was suspected of physically abusing the child when, actually, he had merely violated an administrative rule.
“They will say (in court) whatever they need to say to keep the child where they want them,” Uvodich said.
Uvodich said she didn’t see anything wrong with subjecting contractors to fines.
“That’s not a bad idea at all,” she said.
The committee did not take testimony from the contractors, law enforcement officers, county attorneys, foster parents, or children in foster care. There was little discussion on why the children were placed in state custody in the first place.
Afterward, Kyle Kessler, a spokesman for KVC Behavioral Health Care, warned that fining contractors would add to the system’s troubles.
“Whether it’s intended to be an incentive or a disincentive, the outcome would not be unlike what you’re seeing today in the practice of defensive medicine,” Kessler said. “Doctors don’t want to get sued so they order all kinds of procedures they wouldn’t ordinarily order. I don’t think we want to see that happen with the foster care system.”
SRS Secretary Don Jordan asked committee members to recognize that while the state’s foster care system is far from perfect, its performance outcomes are among the best in the nation.
On several occasions, Jordan told committee members “you need to hear from the (juvenile court) judges,” noting that many of the concerns raised by the parents and grandparents are driven by law.
“This is not a loosey-goosey area,” he said. “The laws are pretty clear on how things are supposed to go.”
He told committee members that while parents and grandparents often insist they had not done anything wrong, in most instances, they “. . .hadn’t done anything right, either.”
Usually, he said, judges rule against parents regaining custody of their children because the parents haven’t heeded repeated warnings to change their ways.
Jordan warned that if a parent’s rights could not be terminated unless they’d been convicted of a serious crime, their children would end up spending considerably more time in state custody than they do now.
“At some point, there comes a time when you have to say this has gone on long enough, it’s time to move on toward permanency,” he said.
Today, about 4,600 children are in the state’s foster care system