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Economy, substance abuse contributing to rise in foster care numbers, official says

By Dave Ranney | May 13, 2013

Gov. Sam Brownback at Tuesday's proclamation-signing ceremony.

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A state official charged with overseeing the state’s foster care system today blamed the economy and drug and alcohol abuse for a recent increase in the number of children in state custody.

“The struggles that all Kansas families are having right now with the economy is a piece of that,” said Gina Meier-Hummel, director of the Division of Prevention and Protective Services at the Kansas Department for Children and Families. “I’d also say, certainly, we have a substance abuse problem that’s affecting families in Kansas.”

Meier-Hummel, who spoke during a proclamation-signing ceremony at Gov. Sam Brownback’s office, said she thought drug and alcohol abuse were more of a factor than the economy.

The governor declared May as Foster Care Month in Kansas and encouraged people to consider becoming foster or adoptive parents.

According to the latest data on the DCF website, 5,289 children were in the state’s foster care system in July 2012; in March 2013, there were 5,658.

During the same 10-month period, the number of foster children declared eligible for adoption increased from 875 to 990.

Meier-Hummel said the state’s foster care contractors have struggled to recruit enough foster parents and adoptive families to handle the increase.

“It’s a never-ending need,” she said.

Two-thirds of state's foster care adoptions resulted from foster parents adopting children already in their care.

DCF reports also showed an increase in the number of reports of abuse or neglect being investigated. There were 4,774 reports being investigated in July 2012 versus 5,533 in March 2013.

Dona Booe, chief executive with Kansas Children’s Service League, an advocacy group that works with foster parents, said she suspected that past cuts in funding for services for low-income families also may contributed to the increased number of children in foster care.

“Many of the early intervention-type services that used to be available in our communities have been diminishing at a time when more and more families are struggling to find jobs and work longer hours,” Booe said. “Without these services it gets harder and harder for some of these families to stay together.”

Booe said that while the economy may be improving on some fronts, it’s not had much of an impact on the percentage of children living in poverty.

“That percentage is increasing,” she said, “and poverty is a huge predictor of child abuse and neglect.”

Last year, an Annie E. Casey Foundation study found that between 2008 and 2011, the percentage of Kansas children living at or below the federal poverty level increased from 14.5 percent to almost 19 percent.

Almost half the state’s school-age children are eligible for free or reduced-cost school lunches.

Children are eligible for free lunches if they live in households with monthly incomes below 130 of the federal poverty level or approximately $2,100 for a family of three.

Those in households between 130 percent and 185 percent of the poverty guidelines are eligible for lunch subsidies.

Several members of the Kansas Youth Advisory Council – a DCF-sponsored group of teenagers and young adults who are in or have been in foster care – took part in the Monday ceremony.

Christian Sauerman said the group was looking for ways to increase communication among teens in foster care, their case workers, their court-appointed attorneys, and juvenile court judges.

“We want to make it so youths have more of a say in their programs,” said Sauerman, who spent about two and a half years in foster care. He’s currently a sophomore at Washburn University in Topeka.

“Sometimes kids don’t want to go home,” he said, “and sometimes they do, but their parents can’t afford them or there are mental (health) issues.”

Elaine Warden, a foster parent since 2002, said it was not unusual for teens in foster care to have little or no contact with the attorneys who represent them in court.

“Two of the four girls I have have a very good attorney who talks to them,” she said. “The other two, I don’t know if they even know who their attorney is.”

Warden and her husband, Harry, live in Topeka. She said over the course of the past 11 years they have cared for between 100 and 150 children.

“Some stay a while, some don’t stay a while,” she said. “We had three who just got adopted in November that we’d had for two years. The hardest part is giving them back.”

Earlier this year, DCF announced that it would not renew two of its four contracts with foster care service agencies.

Effective July 1, United Methodist Youthville, Wichita, and TFI, also known as The Farm, Inc., Emporia, will lose their regional contracts. DCF will continue to contract with KVC Behavioral Healthcare, Olathe, and St. Francis Community Services, Salina.

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