Foster care in the state of Kansas is overwhelmed.

According to the Kansas Department for Children and Families, in November 2017, 7,347 Kansas children were in foster care. That’s a record high and 2,000 more than just five years ago.

The shortage of qualified foster homes means many of the kids placed in foster care must be moved far away from familiar schools and friends. Julie Dinkel, foster care recruiter for St. Francis Community Services  for southwest Kansas, said 58 children from Ford County are currently placed in foster care in another county.

“It’s definitely hard,” Dinkel said, “they are pulled away from their family but then they also might be pulled away from the school and teachers that they know, their church, community and friends.

“They lose a lot of little pieces.”

Dinkel said that St. Francis regularly receives inquiries from individuals about becoming foster parents in Ford County, but the state of Kansas has very stringent regulations governing not only potential foster parents but also housing size and certain construction and design requirements.

“Sometimes their homes don’t have enough space, or maybe the bedrooms are in the basement,” Dinkel said. “Maybe they don’t have egress windows or some other requirement so they can’t be licensed by the state.”

The regulations are obviously designed to ensure safe living conditions but they do result in a smaller pool of potential foster homes from which to draw.

Since the goal for DCF is almost always a reunification with their family, another challenge with placing children far away is arranging family visits.

“There is always a lot of transportation,” Dinkel said. “We certainly need more homes in Ford County.”

St. Francis currently has placements in six foster homes in Ford County, according to Dinkel. Her organization estimates a minimum need of 33 foster homes to meet the demand in the county.

In Ford County, the DCF reports that neglect and parental substance abuse are by far the primary reasons children are taken from homes, accounting for 64 percent of removals. Mental health issues often play a role as well.

“Sometimes it’s the living conditions of the home,” Dinkel said. “We see physical abuse and sexual abuse. We have children come in for truancy. There are so many different reasons.”

In an effort to help stem the tide, St. Francis operates their Family Preservation program that counsels children and families referred by DCF before any removal efforts have taken place. Dinkel said the state works with several organizations to counsel families.

In 2016 and 2017, the Kansas legislature and DCF directed increased funding and more effort into counseling and prevention programs, many of which are family-based.

Stanna Unruh, intensive supervision officer for Juvenile Services at Santa Fe Trail Community Corrections, said the agency does experience crossover with DCF-involved youth. She has seen first-hand the push toward family intervention.   

“Topeka has reinvested money into prevention and intervention,” Unruh said. “They’ve provided funding to pay for therapy so it’s not on the family to finance that.”

Unruh said Juvenile Services now has a fully funded in-home family therapy program designed to prevent removal of children from the home.

“The goal is to keep them within their community or as close to their community as possible,” she said.

The agency also offers functional-family therapy and has contracted sex offender therapy. Unruh said that previously sex offenders would have to be sent to an in-patient facility for therapy.

Unruh said there is currently a particular shortage of placement options for girls.

Potential foster parents have more options available than in the past, according to Dinkel.

“Foster parents can pick ages and the circumstances of children that they are wanting to foster and wanting to license for,” she said.

Potential foster parents can also choose to simply provide a respite care service that gives other foster parents a break by taking children for short periods of time.

Dinkel said that the Children’s Alliance of Kansas conducts extensive training for potential foster parents so that they know what they’re getting into. St. Francis has teams of caseworkers who regularly visit and consult with foster care homes.

According to DCF average length of stay for foster children who are ultimately reunited with their families is nine months.

Last October Kansas lawmakers were outraged after learning more than 70 foster children are missing in Kansas.

Many of those missing are assumed to be runaways according to DCF chief Phyllis Gilmore. They are generally older youth in family foster homes, attending normal school and activities but they miss their biological families. Others are on the run with a parent trying to keep them out of foster care.

To contact the writer email sedger@dodgeglobe.com