A new program is working to prevent children from ending up in foster care. A collection of grants totaling $13 million were awarded to 18 nonprofit organizations around the state last week. The grants are a part of the Family First initiative, designed to help children at risk of entering state care.
Although the rate of children entering foster care has increased throughout the United States in the past five years, Kansas has an exceptionally high rate of children in state custody, according to data from the Department of Health and Human Services. In 2017, the most recent year for which data is available, Kansas ranked fifth in the nation in the rate of our children in foster care.
In addition to the high numbers of children in the system, there are not enough services available to children in state custody with serious mental illness. Shrinking numbers of psychiatric residential treatment facilities for youths and limits on the length of residential treatment stays have led to a statewide gap in services for some of our state’s most vulnerable children. Lack of foster placements for children with mental health and behavioral issues was among the primary reasons children ended up sleeping in contractor offices, a practice that continued into 2019 after stopping briefly last year.
The reasons children end up in foster care are complex. Substance abuse, particularly opioid abuse, has been a large factor nationwide in the rising numbers of children in state custody. Most children in foster care are there due to neglect or parental drug abuse, with a much smaller number of children experiencing physical or sexual abuse.
In response, advocates pushed for passage of Family First Prevention Services Act on a federal level. The legislation allowed money formerly only available for foster care services to be used for prevention. Kansas had to opt to receive federal funds from the program, and did so in the most recent session.
The Kansas Department for Children and Families received 55 grant applications and awarded 18 agencies. Grantees are spread throughout the state and provide a wide range of services. Family First will fund family therapies, substance abuse programs, home visit services and parent skill-building programs. Kinship navigation services, which are resources for grandparents or other family caregivers caring for a relative’s children, will be available statewide.
Another welcome aspect of the program is statewide evaluation led by the University of Kansas’ Center for Research. The organization will convene regional and statewide advisory teams and evaluate Family First programs for up to five years to see if the programs truly reduce need for foster care. This type of evaluation is rarely something individual nonprofit organizations have the resources to implement, but the data will be invaluable as we work to make a measurable impact on the numbers of children in foster care.
Strengthening families to prevent children from entering foster care is certainly a wise approach. Children able to stay with their families, safely and with adequate support, is the best-case-scenario for Kansas.