From 2016 to 2018 — under former Governor Sam Brownback (R) — the Kansas Department for Children and Families “secretly withheld millions in payments to private operators of the state foster care system, propelling them toward financial ruin and directly contributing to the suffering of kids in state custody,” The Topeka Capital-Journal reported in May.
An investigation by The Capital-Journal found that more than $21 million in payments to the two contractors was delayed over a 30-month period and at least $1.8 million in services from fiscal year 2017 was never paid at all.
Just days after Laura Kelly (D) beat former Brownback in November 2018, “DCF agreed to make a final round of hush payments to prevent the foster care system from failing before Kelly took office.”
Governor Kelly subsequently increased DCF’s budget by $22 million and took over direct billing for the disputed services.
“My administration has taken dramatic strides in stabilizing and rebuilding our state foster care system,” Kelly said. “As leaders, we have a moral obligation to protect our children and families, and my administration will continue to do everything in our power to ensure their safety and well-being.”
Details of the situation are only now reaching the public because Saint Francis and KVC were bound by a nondisclosure agreement imposed by the state, and also due to fear of retaliation, The Capital-Journal reported.
The results were devastating for the state’s foster children:
Children with increasing frequency bounced between temporary homes, slept in offices, went missing and were exposed to sexual trauma, physical violence and neglect. Kansas Appleseed Center for Law and Justice in 2018 filed a class-action lawsuit demanding better care.
For Joey Hentzler, director of advocacy for Kansas Appleseed, delayed payments help explain terrifying news reports of sexual violence and gruesome deaths involving foster children.
Several issues were at play in creating the mess, the newspaper’s investigation found.
DCF Secretary Phyllis Gilmore, who stepped down in late 2017, “helped carry out Gov. Sam Brownback’s aggressive cost-cutting agenda, including the slashing of welfare programs that led to more children being placed in state custody.”
According to Rep. Jarrod Ousley, a Democrat who serves on the House Children and Seniors Committee, Gilmore indicated “everything was fine” and that increased funding was unnecessary.
All the while, contractors were not being reimbursed properly for “finding places for children to stay, checking in on them and providing counseling and other services.”
As the number of children entering the foster care system soared, DCF refused to make up the difference, the report said.
DCF also refused to provide funding for children who had left the foster care system to return to their parents but wound up back in the system again — a policy that was “meant to be an incentive to keep families together.”
Funding also decreased for children’s mental health needs, even as the number of children who needed such services grew, including “human trafficking victims and children with extreme aggressiveness or a tendency to harm themselves.”
KVC Kansas spokeswoman Jenny Kutz told The Capital-Journal that the organization suffered “significant financial losses.”
Likewise, Saint Francis “struggled to absorb $8.8 million in actual costs that weren’t reimbursed in fiscal years 2016 and 2017.”
Three days after Brownback lost reelection, “Saint Francis and KVC concluded the ongoing financial dispute would require them to surrender their contracts, a startling revelation.”
In the end, an internal review conducted by DCF found that “the agency never repaid 25% of the $7.4 million in missed payments from fiscal year 2017.”
What happened in the 2010s must never be repeated,” said Linda Bass, president of KVC Kansas. “Funding for community supports and mental health were cut dramatically, leading to a 50% increase in the number of children in foster care. In less than one decade, we went from one of the country’s best child welfare systems to one of the most stressed.
“What changed were state policies and funding, not the quality of the private nonprofit partners involved. We are advocating every day for the policies and adequate funding needed to serve vulnerable Kansas children and families.”
Image credit: Screengrab / KCPT / YouTube