Gov.-elect Laura Kelly denounced the state's stringent limits on federal aid beneficial to Kansas children and expressed dismay a state agency failed to secure more residential psychiatric treatment beds for struggling youths.
Kelly, a Democratic state senator preparing to assume the governorship in January, served on the large state government task force that wrapped work on a comprehensive study of challenges facing Kansas' child welfare system, including the privatized foster care program struggling under the responsibility of caring for thousands of children in state care.
At the task force's final meeting at the Capitol, Kelly said time had come to reverse decisions by then-Gov. Sam Brownback stretching back to 2011 that limited eligibility for Temporary Assistance for Families, or TANF, and for distribution of food stamps, or SNAP.
"In my thinking, we need to go back and look at all those benefit eligibility changes that were made," she said. "They have caused great consternation for all these fragile families. We just pulled the safety net out from underneath them. You don't want to throw kids deeper into poverty and then expect a decent outcome."
Kelly said research by the University of Kansas demonstrated a connection in 2017 between diminished participation in TANF and a rise in the number of child abuse and neglect cases and the surge in foster care placements. The number of Kansas families receiving TANF dropped from 14,300 in 2011 to 4,500 in 2017 as the Brownback administration cut lifetime limits from five years to two years. More than 7,000 children were in the custody of the state foster care system in 2017, up 38 percent since 2012.
"Direct correlation between what we did with eligibility for assistance, whether it was TANF or SNAP or child-care assistance," Kelly said.
The Kansas Department for Children and Families come under intense criticism during task force deliberations for losing track of approximately 75 children in foster care and allowing contractors to hold children overnight in office buildings.
Kelly said she was stunned the Kansas Department of Aging and Disability Services did nothing concrete this year to increase beds at privately operated treatment facilities for the estimated 140 Kansas youths on a treatment waiting list. Since Brownback took office in 2011, the number of these specialized beds fell in Kansas from 780 to 280 and the number of facilities operating in that area declined by half.
"The state created the shortage by underfunding, essentially starving some of those facilities, so that they could no longer operate," Kelly said.
Task force chairwoman Vicki Schmidt, a Topeka Republican senator elected in November as state insurance commissioner, said the task force prioritized recommendations in three tiers. The report requests priority investment in recruitment and retention of high-qualify staff and the development of a web-based case management and data reporting system at DCF and relevant agencies to share information about a child's educational, mental, dental and behavioral needs.
The report recommended Kansas adopt the federal family preservation act, which would include new policy on appropriate placement of children in foster care. The report says Kansas ought to provide high-risk, Medicaid-eligible youth consistent medical and behavioral care.
"I don't believe this one will collect dust," Schmidt said. "There are children's lives at stake. We have over 7,500 children in the system right now. They're depending on us."
DCF Secretary Gina Meier-Hummel, who served on the task force, convinced colleagues to remove from the report a proposal to establish a special child-advocate office within the Kansas Department of Administration. She said the state had sufficient checks and balances to protect children.