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Senator plans foster care reform initiative

Sen. Forrest Knox says he will spend summer preparing foster care reform plan for 2014 session

By Dave Ranney | June 04, 2013

A state senator who has adopted four boys out of foster care said he’s putting together a plan for reforming the state’s foster care and adoption programs.

“There needs to be changes in every single part of the system,” said Sen. Forrest Knox, an Altoona Republican.

During an informational meeting he convened at the Statehouse last week, Knox said he planned to spend much of the summer and fall working on the initiative, which he would then introduce for consideration in the 2014 legislative session. He said he would be conferring with officials at the Kansas Department for Children and Families, judges, attorneys, CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) workers, social workers and foster parents.

“Bottom line? My (adopted) kids should have been in the (foster care) system for two years,” Knox said. “They were in for four. That’s a travesty.”

Sen. Forrest Knox, R-Altoona.

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Knox said he and his wife, Renee, have nine biological children, two of whom still live at home. The couple adopted the four brothers — then ages 5, 7, 8 and 13 — two years ago after having cared for them for two years as foster parents.

“Everybody who’s part of the system now, when they find out we were foster parents and that I’m in the Legislature they say, ‘I want to talk to you,’” Knox said. “Every time, it’s the same thing, they say, ‘There are things that need to be changed.””

Kansas privatized much of its foster care and adoption services in 1996.

Knox said he expected his initiative to include proposals for changing licensing standards that tend to discourage rural families from becoming foster parents (having to build a fence around a pond, for example), tougher penalties for service providers that miss appointments or fail to provide court-ordered services, and shortened procedures for terminating parental rights.

“That’s a tough one for me,” Knox said, referring to termination of parental rights. “I’m very conservative and I’m very big on parental rights, but there comes a time when enough is enough. We know this parent just isn’t going to get his or her act together and we need to say, ‘OK, that’s it.’”

Knox also said he would look for ways to expand the state’s corps of CASA volunteers.

“They’re the ones who really know what’s going on,” he said. “They’re the shining stars.”

House Majority Leader Jene Vickrey, a Republican from Louisburg, convened a similar meeting for House members.

Vickrey said he would be “eager” to support Knox’s initiative.

“Anything we can do that helps us get children into permanent homes that are stable — it’s the right thing to do,” he said. “It’s good for the kids, it's good for families, it’s good for everybody.”

Vickrey and his wife, Teresa, have adopted four children.

DCF officials at the meetings encouraged legislators to ask their churches to host a “Foster Care and Adoptive Family Sunday” event on Aug. 4.

During the events, church members would be asked to consider becoming foster or adoptive parents.

“The kids who are going into our foster care system have no control over what’s going on in their lives,” said Kathe Decker, deputy secretary in charge of family services at DCF. “We can help them by finding people who can be supportive to them, and show them what love really means and that they are worth something and that they do not have to live in that sense of rejection and not be worthy of someone to love. That’s an important message that we need to get out.”

DCF officials said they also would be asking civic groups to host similar events in August.

“There’s a role for everyone,” said Anna Pilato, deputy secretary in charge of strategic development, faith-based and community initiatives at DCF.

According to the latest data on the DCF website:

  • 5,800 Kansas foster children were living in “out-of-home placements” in April; six months earlier, there were 5,550.
  • 58 percent of the state’s foster children live in in foster homes; 32 percent live with relatives. The other 10 percent are in group homes or other settings.
  • 978 children in foster care were available for adoption on April; six months earlier there were 932.

At a press conference last month, state officials attributed the increase in the number of children in foster care to the weak economy and drug abuse by parents.

Earlier this year, DCF announced that it had renewed contracts with two of the state’s four foster care contractors: KVC Behavioral Health Care Inc. and St. Francis Community Services. The state's contracts with United Methodist Youthville and TFI Family Services were not renewed.

The new contracts take effect July 1. KVC and St. Francis will oversee the state’s efforts to connect foster children with parents willing to adopt.

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