Eye on Kansas





"The process of reforming SRS will take more time and effort; we have just begun."
- 43rd District Representative S. Mike Kiegerl
- March 12, 2010


INTRODUCTION

A recent report by the Kansas Joint Committee on Children's Issues describes the privatized child welfare system as one in which there are instances when contractors "do not place children with family, are allowed to submit sometimes subjective court reports parents and family of the child are not allowed to see, act in arbitrary ways, do not return children when parents have completed reintegration plans, and don't provide enough meaningful contact between children and parents in their visitation policies."

The Committee received testimony from parents and grandparents of children who had been placed in the foster care system. The committee published what it described as a partial list of their complaints. Among them:

. Grandparents being denied placement of their grandchildren due to their age

. The state making money when children are adopted by non-relatives

. Case managers, caseworkers and other resource personnel not being licensed or trained properly

. SRS and contractors making questionable decisions regarding the children's care and placement

. Children's behavior growing worse in foster care placement

. Children being abused during foster care placement

Three State Senators, Oletha Faust-Goudeau, David Haley, and Julia Lynn said that they had received more complaints in recent years. Committee Chair State Rep Mike Kiegerl said he was not only receiving more complaints, but the intensity of them was increasing as well. Haley discussed the secrecy in child custody cases, and expressed frustration about his inability to learn facts in cases that were brought to his attention. He suggested that new legislation may be needed to give state legislators access to documents about cases to help them pass more effective laws.

Kansas Watchdog provides heartwrenching audio clips of much of the testimony, as well as copies of some of the prepared testimony as it was submitted to the Committee, providing a brief summary:

One grandfather, Clarence Wonsetler from Topeka, testified he spent $10,000 on legal bills to get his granddaughter back after she had been in eight foster homes. The man said he had been told he and his wife were too old for custodial rights, but his granddaughter was placed in foster care with a woman only a few years younger with medical problems of her own. The man claimed the foster mother smoked, even thought she needed oxygen. While the man has his granddaughter back, he now wants "to bear witness to the atrocities that continue."
Another case was particularly touching. A young woman, Cecillia Arnold originally from Wichita, told about the abusive relationship she was in, and was victimized again when the state took her children. Rep. Bill Otto (R-LeRoy) said he was stunned the abused mom, who had never broken any law, lost her parental rights.

Wonsetler told the Committee that among the horrors that his granddaughter had endured while in foster care was having her hands cuffed behind her back, grey tape put over her mouth, and being locked in a dark closet for long periods of time. She nearly drowned when she was pushed off a boat, while the foster mother slept in a tent.

Larry Sneary testified that: "There is significant evidence that my daughter has been abused. This has been downplayed by the courts." In his case, the court determined that his "psychological issues" made him an unfit parent, granting guardianship to the maternal grandmother. The grandmother will not allow any visitation, not even professionally supervised, he explained, adding that: "As a father, who previously took care of her from birth, this is pure agony."

Grandmother Kathy Winters has been fighting the system for custody of her daughter's children. "My father passed away. The day I came back from my dad's funeral, the contractor called me and said 'I have bad news. We're severing your daughter's rights, and we're removing the boys from your home'," she told the Committee.

The Committee ultimately requested that audits be conducted, and that they should "examine whether a financial incentive exists for a contractor to keep children in the Foster Care system and, as a result, not return the children to their homes or recommend placement in the homes of relatives."

The Committee also requested that four bills introduced by various of its members be considered by the Kansas Legislature. These bills include: HB 2461 which would rescind SRS' authority to contract privately for foster care and related services; HB 2511 which would grant SRS the authority to reimburse grandparents sufficiently for providing care for their grandchildren; HB 2512 which would grant courts additional authority regarding placement of children; and HB 2494 which would add restrictions on the courts' authority to remove children from their homes and terminate parental rights.

In his cover letter accompanying the report, 43rd District Representative S. Mike Kiegerl notes: "The process of reforming SRS will take more time and effort; we have just begun. I have requested several audits to determine what value the Kansas tax payer is getting for the $150+ million we're spending on private contractors and to document the financial irregularities in the SRS budget of $1.6 billion."


A BRIEF HISTORY

After a decade of well-documented failings in the Kansas foster care system; after eight years of litigation and hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees, critics charged that the state of Kansas still wasn't close to meeting even the minimum standards of care for abused and neglected children.

The state agency entrusted with the protection of children was seemingly unable to pass a state compliance audit. Even after a landmark suit against the agency initiated by the American Civil Liberties Union was finally settled, audits pointed to continued failure to comply with even the most basic provisions of its consent decree.

By March of 1997, the state legislature had allocated over $800,000 in legal fees for the department--money which presumably could have been better spent on the children in state care. As of January 1998, SRS was in compliance with only 15 percent of the terms of the agreement.

In June of 1997, the University of Kansas Office of University Relations announced that "The SRS Commission of Children and Family Services, with direct assistance from the KU School of Social Welfare, has fully privatized the state's adoption, foster-care and family-preservation services. In the process, Kansas has become a model for the rest of the nation, as local and state governments wrestle with the best methods of fixing what many consider a broken system."

Around this time several states were eyeballing closely the new managed care model. Georgia planned to proceed with privatization of child welfare services as the result of a conference sponsored by SRS. About 250 representatives from 36 states showed up at the seminar SRS conducted on privatization.

What the state of Georgia didn't know was that several ardent critics of privatization had already detailed the new system's failures. The reason Georgia didn't know was that SRS most effectively controlled the presentation.

The Kansas Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers reported that it was barred - along with state legislators - from attending the conference. To make matters worse, the KNASW had prepared a booklet for distribution at the event, from which the testimony of at least two critics was physically removed.

Among these critical pieces of suppressed testimony was that of TC Mosier, President of United Foster Families For Children, an organization founded to advocate on behalf of foster children in the wake of privatization, and that of Hon. Jean F. Shepherd, District Judge of the Seventh Judicial District.

"Privatization of all child welfare services in this state took place on a chaotic fast track without public discussion and input," Judge Shepherd told a Kansas committee. Perhaps more to the point was the testimony of TC Mosier, who explained:

Foster Families have been ridiculed by the contracting agency and its workers. One foster parent was quite direct saying, "the workers seem to forget who knows the children better than anyone else, and when I attempt to share information, recommend, or add lip, I am told to let the professionals do their job." The contracting agency and its staff seem to forget that as foster parents, we have the children daily, weekly, and most often for a long length of stay; they deny the fact that foster care is a significant piece of the puzzle, and when the piece is ignored, decisions are made that can jeopardize the future of the child, thus the children suffer. Foster parents have been told to "stay within their boundaries," yet decisions that have been occurring have definitely had a negative effect on the foster children. One contracting agency have told the foster families, "it is not of your business," when they make recommendations. Foster families have been threatened, lied to, put down, and treated as if our concerns were nothing. Two of the contracting agencies have treated the foster parents as numbers and service delivery components, rather than human beings.

Apparently oblivious to these realities, the mainstream media continued to trumpet the restructuring as progress, with Ann Scott Tyson reporting in the Christian Science Monitor in August of 1997 that Kansas had managed to pioneer a "solution to child welfare woes."

By November of 1997, legislators were already facing a "deluge" of complaints indicating that the privatization of child welfare services wasn't working at all as intended. Audits confirmed that SRS had failed to so much as conduct cursory background checks on its providers. Worse, a few short months after privatization, monthly court statistics showed that the number of children in need of care filings were almost twice what they were during the previous year.

Elsewhere, Utah's Deseret News reporter Lezlee E. Whiting noted that three teenage boys had been removed from their foster home "after police found them and their foster dad at a drug and alcohol party." A state official said that the incident was "the nail in the coffin" for the way the Utah Division of Child and Family Services contracted with its private providers of foster care.

In April of 1998, David L. Lewis of the New York City Daily News reported that private agencies were doing a worse job than the City itself was in terms of caring for foster children. Then Public Advocate Mark Green had charged that those private groups accounted for two-thirds of the complaints handled by a nonprofit service agency set up in his office.

In May of 1998, reports from Kansas indicated that children were being lost in the system and shifted from home to home. Foster care families were reported as being driven from the system by the new requirements of privatized care. Professionals were frustrated by what they saw as a decline in the overall standard of care for foster children. State inspectors had identified numerous health violations in one of the new facilities, and critics charged that even with reported incidents of sexual abuse of children in state care, the virtual monopolies created under the managed care plan had left judges without alternative placements in which to place children.

Proponents of privatization continued on to promote it as a panacea, and the mainstream media uncritically sounded the mantra. "States should consider completely privatizing foster care and adoption," explained the May 1998 edition of the influential journal Reader's Digest, citing as a source Conna Craig of the Massachusetts-based Institute for Children. (In August of 1997, Craig had admonished the public and press during a press conference televised on C-SPAN to keep a close eye on events in Kansas).

Even as privatization continued to be promoted, Cook County, Illinois, Public Guardian Patrick Murphy blamed fast-track privatization in his county for the needless death of a foster child. In March of 1998, the Telegraph Herald reported that Murphy had criticized DCFS for its rapid privatization of child care, warning that many of the start-up agencies were ill prepared for the task, and that as a result more such tragedies may follow.

Writing in the industry journal The Future of Children in Spring of 1998, Marcia Robinson Lowry of Children's Rights, Inc., explained that "in the absence of focused and sustained pressure, too many government child welfare systems have responded to the crisis of the day" with what she described as "eager acceptance of single, simple operating principles." Lowry noted that apparently appealing solutions, like privatization and neighborhood-based services, loomed large on the agenda, cautioning that:

The degree to which these will be used as single-principle solutions remains to be seen, but past practice suggests serious future problems if they are promoted as the cure to all that ails child welfare systems, or if they are used to ease pressure on politicians without regard to rigorous monitoring of the quality of services, supervision, and protection that are actually provided to children.

The Kansan legislators had eagerly accepted the single, simple operating principles, and by June of that same year, the Capital-Journal reported that Kansas legislators were hearing "horror stories" about privatized foster care, and that one lawmaker in particular was so unsettled by the reports from his constituents about foster care that he couldn't sleep.

In September of 1998, the Capital-Journal reported that: "The state's largest public employee union released the results of an opinion survey that it said shows children in foster care receive worse care now that the program has been privatized. The survey was sent by the Kansas Association of Public Employees to about 1,300 state-employed social workers, social workers for private contractors, district court judges, guardians ad litem, and children's advocacy organizations."


MAKING COMMITMENTS

The dissemination of ideas often takes place at industry conferences, such as the one that Georgia's representatives had attended in Kansas.

Lara Wozniak of the St. Petersburg Times reported in early Septemeber of 1998 that Chris Card, president of YMCA Children, Youth and Families, Inc., in Sarasota, Florida, had compared privatizing child protection services in Florida to serving a bacon and eggs breakfast.

"The chicken made a contribution to that breakfast," said Card at the Wyndham Harbour Island Hotel in Tampa to more than 250 people attending a two-day-long statewide forum on privatizing Florida's child protection system. "The pig made a commitment."

By this time, Florida's legislature had already passed a bill calling for privatizing the state's foster care services. Card was one of several speakers who told the participants - people working for state and private advocacy organizations - that privatization was an opportunity, rather than a negative mandate.

"I want you all to be pigs," said Card. "I want you all to be committed."

Even as Chris Card was urging Florida's foster care providers to become committed pigs, problems in the Sunshine State continued to mount. Around that time, the Office of the Inspector General reported that based upon a citizen complaint to a Florida Senator, "an investigation was initiated to determine if a privatization contractor was negligent in providing protective services to foster children in Lake County." A second citizen made similar complaints against both the contractor and the Department, the report explained. The result?

The investigation supported the allegations that falsification of records by the contractor's program supervisor resulted in inappropriate services to one foster child; that the supervisor was negligent in handling services for two other foster children; and that the supervisor failed to make the required notification to the Department regarding dual employment with the contractor while the supervisor was working for the Department.
Other supported allegations included placement of a child into an unsafe foster home by the contractor and the Department, false reporting of therapeutic services for a foster child by a contractor employee, negligent handling of a foster child's trust fund by the Department, unauthorized taking of money from a foster child's relative by a Department employee, and deficient child abuse investigations by Department employees.

To be sure, there were many other issues addressed in the Inspector General's report, not the least of which included: "falsification of court petitions, falsification of child abuse investigative records and failure of staff to notify the client of required child support payments, conflict of interest, abuse of position, misconduct, fraud, and other irregularities in processing state economic aid for clients, one of which he impregnated, employee misconduct, inappropriate touching of a client . . ." And the list just went on, and on . . .

Meanwhile, the problems in Kansas continued to mount. "The death of a toddler in Council Grove and a series of legislative audits have generated new questions about the functioning of the state's social welfare agency and the private organizations hired to run the foster care system," the Capital-Journal reported in December of 1998.

In January of 1999, Rep. Rocky Nichols introduced legislation aimed at giving employees of private contractors the same "whistle blower" protections that state employees enjoyed. Nichols said that he'd drafted the bill after some employees of private foster care contractors told him they were afraid to bring their concerns about the system to the attention of their supervisors and legislators.

By early 1999, more reports outside of Kansas were coming in about the newly-discovered perils and pitfalls of privatized child welfare services.

"Private agencies play a crucial role in the state foster care system, taking thousands of abused and neglected children that counties cannot place in their government-licensed homes," the Denver Post reported. But critics of privatized foster care "also see tragic exceptions to a system that is supposed to be all about kids. Too often, they say, it's all about money."


ORPHANAGES OF THE PAST

By February of 1999, some legislators were comparing Kansas' privatized facilities to "the orphanages of the past," and by March of 1999, Gov. Bill Graves said that he would support a request from SRS for $35.7 million in emergency funding to bail out Kansas' struggling foster care and adoption contractors. The Governor's frustration reportedly stemmed from the fact that cost overruns had by that time "become the norm in the foster care system."

Partisan bickering predictably broke out, with Kansas Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley and House Minority Leader Jim Garner saying that the state should bail out former adoption services provider Lutheran Social Services by giving it whatever amount it needed to pay all of its subcontractors the full amount that it claimed to be owed.

"I believe it is time to acknowledge and admit that the privatization of social services has been a failure," Garner said in a news conference with reporters.

"I think it is morally wrong that the state is pushing good, nonprofit, faith-based organizations near bankruptcy simply because they've tried to help this state in this social experiment called privatization," said Garner.

"I think it's time to admit it hasn't been successful," said Hensley. "It's time to get together on a bipartisan basis and come up with a solution. We've begun to research some ideas that we'd like to present to the administration." Hensley, however, said that he and Garner weren't quite prepared to say what those ideas were.

The Governor's office countered with a prepared press release, saying that: "The Democrats fail to understand the issue at hand, fail to acknowledge the successes to date and refuse to accept the public/private partnership and its benefits to children."

The Governor's release added that: "My commitment to partnering with providers for the benefit of Kansas children remains very firm." The Governor, however, made no comment as to whether the state should provide Lutheran Social Services the estimated $2 million that it claimed was needed to pay its subcontractors the amount that they were owed.


CONCLUSION

"The case for privatization is built on the assertion that contractual relationships will give the pubic sector all the advantages of the market without undermining the level of public service," explains Elliott D. Sclar in You Don't Always Get What You Pay for: The Economics of Privatization. The first chapter of his book begins with an apropos sub-heading: "The More Things Change, the More They Remain the Same." The remainder of his book explains in detail just why this so.

Welcome to the grand social experiment called privatization - an experiment gone awry. A system that today rewards private service providers for the failures that have historically been relegated to the states.

Welcome to the return to the orphanages of the past.





LOCAL NEWS COVERAGE

Privatization called 'failure' by Demos
Roger Myers, Capital-Journal, August 17, 2000.

Former SRS Secretary Keeps Eye on Agency
Jim McLean, Capital-Journal, March 23, 1999.

Graves Agreeable to Bailout of Foster Care and Adoption
Jim McLean, Capital-Journal, March 14, 1999.

Foster Care, Adoption Need Funding Infusion
Jim McLean, Capital-Journal, March 12, 1999.

Foster care crisis needs attention
Jim McLean, Capital-Journal, February 2, 1999.

Senate Leader Proposes Fixes for Care 'Crisis'
Jim McLean, Capital-Journal, January 28, 1999.

Bill Would Protect Whistle Blowers from Contractors
Jim McLean, Capital-Journal, January 20, 1999.

Critics Find Flaws in New Foster Care
Ric Anderson, Topeka Capital-Journal, August 17, 1998.

SRS Renews Foster Care Contracts
Roger Myers, Topeka Capital-Journal, February 5, 1998.

Report: Compliance of SRS Low
Roger Myers, Capital-Journal, January 7, 1998.

State Conference Influences Georgia's Privatization Plan
Roger Myers, Topeka Capital-Journal, November 27, 1997.

SRS Drafts Plan to Tackle Child-Welfare Ills
Roger Myers, Topeka Capital-Journal, November 25, 1997.

Judge Questions Program Benefits
Roger Myers, Topeka Capital-Journal, November 5, 1997.

Task Force Urged to Find Remedy for Foster Care
Steve Fry, Topeka Capital-Journal, April 24, 1997.

Jury Still Out on Privatization of Foster Care and Adoption
Muneera Naseer, Topeka Capital-Journal, April 10, 1997.

Heat is on for Answers
Topeka Capital-Journal, March 24, 1997.

Child Advocate Seeks Compliance by State
Associated Press as reported in Topeka Capital-Journal, March 5, 1997.

Chris Strunk, "Youthville Stays Course for Foster Care," Newton Kansan, January 30, 1999, noting that on average, United Methodist Youthville receives $1,045 a month per foster child. It costs the organization about $2,100 a month per child to care for the children removed from their homes and placed in its care, a spokesperson said. Youthville said 63 percent of its budget is money paid to service providers.

Editorial, "Children Will Pay: Kansas can't afford to sit back and wait for its privatized foster care system to get better," Lawrence Journal World, May 3, 1998, explaining that: "According to various reports, children are being lost in the system and shifted from home to home too often. Many foster care families and homes are being driven from the system by the new requirements of privatized care. Professionals are frustrated by what they see as a decline in basic care for foster children."

Mike Shields, "Critics Say Kansas Foster Care Experiment Failing," Lawrence Journal World, as posted April 26, 1998, noting that: "Several critics of the privatized foster care initiative say it has made a historically inadequate system worse than ever."




RELATED READING

Joint Committee on Children's Issues, Report of the Joint Committee on Children's Issues to the 2010 Kansas Legislature, Kansas, December 2009.

Cover letter from Rep. Mike Kiegerl concerning the Final Report of Joint Committee on Children's Issues to the 2010 Kansas Legislature, March 12, 2010.

Earl Glynn, Compelling stories from parents and grandparents about problems with placement and removal of children, Kansas Watchdog, December 4, 2009.

Earl Glynn, Parents, grandparents ask why children removed from homes, Kansas Watchdog, December 1, 2009.

Lara Wozniak, "Advocates for children urged to give all to privatization plan," St. Petersburg Times, September 2, 1998.

Office of Inspector General, Florida Department of Children and Families, Annual Report, Fiscal Year 1999.

Associated Press, "Boy's Death Prompts Review of Foster-care Agencies," Telegraph Herald, March 15, 1998, in which Cook County Public Guardian Patrick Murphy criticized DCFS for its rapid privatization of child care, warning that many of the start-up agencies were ill prepared for the task that more such tragedies may follow.

David Olinger, "Foster care for profit may shortchange youths," Denver Post, February 28, 1999.

Lezlee E. Whiting, "3 Removed From Duchesne Foster Home," Deseret News February 12, 1998.

David L. Lewis, "Foster Agencies Get Low Marks," Daily News, April 17, 1998.

Marcia Robinson Lowry, "Protecting Children from Abuse and Neglect: Four Commentaries," The Future of Children, Vol. 8 No. 1, Spring 1998. (Other commentators included Douglas Besharov, Leroy Pelton, and Michael Weber).

Ann Scott Tyson, "Kansas Pioneers a Solution to Child-Welfare Woes," Christian Science Monitor, August 15, 1997.

Kansans Talk Back: Early Responses To The Move To Privatization of Child Welfare Services
National Association of Social Workers, Kansas Chapter, October 1997.

Kansas First to Reform Foster-Care and Adoption
University of Kansas Office of University Relations, June 16, 1997.




TESTIMONY

Testimony before the SRS Oversight Transition Committee Topeka, Kansas - November 4, 1997

TC Mosier, United Foster Families for Children.

Judge Jean F. Shepherd, District Judge, Seventh Judicial District.




AUDITS

Assessing How Well the Foster Care Program In Kansas is Working: Part II: Funding, Staffing, and Monitoring Issues, 99PA03.2, December 1998.

Assessing How Well the Foster Care Program In Kansas is Working: Part I: Services and Placements, 99PA03.1, November 1998.

Monitoring Report #8, Verifying Information Provided by the Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services on its Compliance with the Terms of the Foster Care Lawsuit Settlement Agreement--98PA34.2, July 1998.

Monitoring Report #7, Verifying Information Provided by the Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services on its Compliance with the Terms of the Foster Care Lawsuit Settlement Agreement--98PA34.1, January 1998.

Monitoring Report #6, Verifying Information Provided by the Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services on its Compliance with the Terms of the Foster Care Lawsuit Settlement Agreement--97PA34.2, June 1997.

Monitoring Report #5, Verifying Information Provided by the Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services on its Compliance with the Terms of the Foster Care Lawsuit Settlement Agreement--97PA34.1, February 1997.

Monitoring Report #4, Verifying Information Provided by the Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services on its Compliance with the Terms of the Foster Care Lawsuit Settlement Agreement--96PA34, July 1996.

Monitoring Report #3, Verifying Information Provided by the Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services on its Compliance with the Terms of the Foster Care Lawsuit Settlement Agreement--96PA34.1, July 1996.

Monitoring Report #2, Verifying Information Provided by the Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services On Its Compliance with the Terms of the Foster Care Lawsuit Settlement Agreement--95PA34, September 1995.

Monitoring Report #1, Verifying Information Provided by the Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services On Its Compliance with the Terms of the Foster Care Lawsuit Settlement Agreement--94PA34.1, October 1994.

Reviewing the Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services' Efforts to Privatize Government Services, 97PA49, March 1997.

Reviewing the Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services' Procedures for Handling Complaints Against Foster Homes, 94PA40, June 1994.



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