As Gilmore departs DCF, Rep. Ousley again calls for state to correct failing services for foster kids

Rep. Jarrod Ousley.
Rep. Jarrod Ousley.

Among the biggest stories out of Topeka last week was the news that embattled Department of Children and Families Sec. Phyllis Gilmore was stepping down. Merriam Rep. Jarrod Ousley, who is the ranking minority member of the House Children and Seniors Committee, had been calling for her resignation for two years over concerns

Ousley submitted this update on the state of affairs surrounding the broken DCF:

For the three years I have served on the Children and Seniors Committee, we have heard testimony on issues facing the Department of Children and Families, but received very little information from the Department on what was being done to correct the problems that appeared to be occurring with frustrating regularity.

In addition to hearing from Guardian Ad Litems on discriminatory practices that may have led to the removal of foster children from safe and loving homes to be placed in unsafe situations, audits of the Agency have found multiple deficiencies putting the care and safety of children at risk. (An audit reviewing the complaints of discrimination will be released on December 14, 2017.)

Two years ago, after again receiving troubling results from an audit, I and Rep. Ward called for the resignation of Secretary Gilmore, as her responses to questions in committee continually brushed aside problems, making it difficult to pursue solutions.

As the the Ranking Minority Member in the House Children and Seniors Committee, it was my priority to create a Foster Care Task Force with the ability to create positive change.  When drafting the bill (House Sub for SB 126) to create the Task Force, we authorized appointments through the Judicial Counsel and legislative leaders, so as to avoid providing appointment power to the Governor’s office, whom we feared would simply appoint people based on their ideological leanings rather than their knowledge or expertise.  Recent stories in the press highlighting children sleeping in DCF offices, 70 missing foster children, and the tragic deaths of abused children have highlighted the need for oversight and improvements.

The bill also created sub-committees to take deep dives into what policy solutions might be provided to begin addressing the many problems facing our Foster Care system.  Three of the legislators appointed to the Task Force have taken on Vice-Chair responsibilities on the sub-committees:  Rep. Linda Gallagher, Sen. Laura Kelly, and myself.  Members of the committees include social workers, judges, police officers, GALs, Child in Need of Care (CINC) attorneys, and legislators.  My sub-committee has been tasked with reviewing issues relating to protection and family preservation.  Rep. Gallagher’s sub-committee is focusing on reintegration and permanency placement, and Sen. Kelly’s sub-committee has been assigned general administration of child welfare and foster care.  For summaries of the information we are receiving, copies of testimony, and other resources, you can visit the committee’s information page at https://www.kslegresearch.org/KLRD-web/Committees/Committees-ChildWelfareSysTF-Resources.html

We have upwards of 7,000 children in foster care, approximately 2,000 more than when Governor Brownback took office and Secretary Gilmore was appointed.  Many potential causes for the increase in children in need of care have been offered by various sources, including the opioid crises and, according to DCF, “the Sandusky effect” of a high profile case increasing awareness of the need to report.  However, there have been several welfare changes that were first rolled out in Kansas as policy changes recommended by DCF, that were then made law in 2015. These policy changes included restrictions in access to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, restrictions on the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (food stamps), and requiring recipients to work twenty hours a week before receiving assistance. These changes resulted in many families losing access to a safety net that would help in times of crises.

The gutting of the safety net, during a time when the Department was being underfunded (along with every other state agency), created a perfect storm of unmet needs, and was compounded by leadership that was committed to minimizing the appearance of the problems rather than solving them.  The knowledge that 70 Kansas’ foster children are missing, becomes even more chilling when coupled with the knowledge that I35 is a corridor for trafficking, and the Kansas Bureau of Investigation is also underfunded, with fewer investigators available to handle  their increasing workload.

In addition to the obvious priority of making sure the state agency tasked with protecting Kansas’ children has the funding resources it needs to complete its job, the Task Force is committed to address the root of the issues that can be improved with policy solutions.

The resignation of Secretary Gilmore, effective December 1, is a step in the right direction. I am hopeful that whomever is appointed to replace her will be willing to embrace the opportunity the Task Force’s work will provide.  A summary of our work is due this January, and final policy recommendations backed by testimony, data, and input from experts and professionals specializing in meeting the needs of at risk children, will be due under the bill in January of 2019. It’s time to fix the things that were broken.