The Kansas Department for Children and Families is preparing to award grants through a new federal program for services aimed at keeping children out of the child welfare system.

Tanya Keys, deputy DCF secretary, told legislators Tuesday the agency has received 55 proposals for evidence-based programs that could receive matching funds through the Family First Preservation Services Act. The programs would address issues like substance use, mental health and parental skills.

The agency plans to offer grants by September and begin implementing the programs Oct. 1.

The Legislature this year allocated $6.5 million for Family First services. Those funds will allow the state to spend $13 million with the federal dollar-for-dollar match. Kansas will be one of 17 states participating in the federal program.

Keys provided an overview of the agency's plans for Family First services during a budget committee hearing with lawmakers from both the Senate and House.

DCF officials and legislators are hopeful the new prevention efforts can help drive down the number of children in state custody. As of this week, Keys said, there are 7,534 children in foster care in Kansas.

"That's our charge and challenge — to keep families engaged and focused," Keys said.

Federal funding for Family First services are limited to programs that meet specific criteria and are focused on children who are at risk of entering foster care.

Rep. Kathy Wolfe Moore, D-Kansas City, said nationwide figures show 85 percent of foster care children are in state custody because of neglect.

"If we're putting all these resources on prevention and dealing with some of these issues, I've got to think that's going to help," Wolfe Moore said.

The addition of social work staff also should help, Wolfe Moore said. The Legislature this year allocated money for 42 new agency positions. Keys said the agency has filled 40 of those positions.

DCF also has identified programs that could be funded through a 2016 juvenile justice reform law that created a reinvestment account. The agency is asking for $3 million to provide services to families with children at risk of being placed in DCF custody.

Those initiatives include family therapy, intensive in-home services, mentoring from Big Brothers Big Sisters, and behavioral intervention services from FosterAdoptConnect.