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These measures will help Kansas children

Christie Appelhanz
Special to Gannett Kansas
Christie Appelhanz is the executive director of the Children's Alliance of Kansas.

You measure, what matters, as the saying goes. But when it comes to Kansas’ juvenile justice reform efforts, we’re using the wrong yardstick. Until we consider the whole picture, we’ll never address what really matters: improving the lives of Kansas children.

It is encouraging that the Juvenile Justice Oversight Committee found that juvenile incarceration rates are down under reform. But as the committee acknowledged, it did not consider what happens to children diverted away from the correctional system and into foster care.

Some of the factors contributing to criminal behavior — like deprivation, unmet mental health or substance abuse needs, or a lack of parenting skills — also contribute to child maltreatment. When reform diverts children from the correctional system, many are placed in foster care. For these “crossover youth,” falling incarceration rates are the wrong metric.

Kansas child welfare agencies report that incidents of violence involving crossover youths have increased in frequency and severity. Attacks on other children, of course, amplify the trauma they have already endured. And attacks on social workers make it harder to retain trained professionals who can best meet the intensive needs of children affected by maltreatment. And, of course, ongoing incidents of violence undermine efforts to find foster or adoptive parents for children in care.

Fortunately, a December Judicial Council report offers a better approach, as well as practical recommendations.

One common-sense recommendation is that the Corrections Department look more comprehensively at violence when considering whether to detain a child. The agency’s current risk-assessment tool ignores violence that did not result in a criminal adjudication, and it fails to consider escalation in the frequency or severity of violence. The Judicial Council rightly recommends eliminating both blind spots.

Another Judicial Council recommendation seems equally obvious: “allow programs assisting crossover youth to receive funds regardless of which agency or entity is providing the service.”

As your story detailed, however, the Corrections Department is sitting on millions in reform-generated savings, while the Department for Children and Families and its foster care agency partners face funding shortfalls and placement backlogs. Given the availability of resources and the intensive needs facing crossover youths, the Judicial Council is right to “encourage funds to be used for this high-risk population.”

The Judicial Council offers common-sense ideas to improve outcomes for crossover children and make both our juvenile justice and foster care systems work better. We urge Gov. Kelly to incorporate them into her budget proposal, and we encourage lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to lend their support.

We can — and we should — do much better for Kansas children.

Christie Appelhanz is the executive director of the Children’s Alliance of Kansas.