On Thursday the 18th, a small team from the Wichita Branch NAACP traveled to the State Capitol Building in Topeka to meet with Representatives from the Governor's office in our continuing effort to bring about substantive policy change in the area of SRS and Child Placements.
We began this effort nearly 5 years ago in response to a number of complaints we'd received from parents whose children had removed from the home and placed in foster or adoptive care. Many of these parents told similar stories of how their children were being placed in home out in Western Kansas where they had no access, many talked about various problems the children faced inside of the foster homes, and many more described a seemingly endless list of courses, tests, and court orders they were required to submit to or they would face the severance of their parental rights.
All of our early complainants were African American, so our initial investigation sought to determine if there was a bias in the system that was impacting African American families. What we determined (pretty early on) was that although there is some degree of disproportionality, the complaints themselves were common to families from all racial and ethnic groups who've had contact with the system.
We began our investigation by calling a series of meetings with various persons representing SRS. Those meetings served to clarify the role of Youthville (an agency contracted by the state to handle child-placements) and our meetings were expanded to include representatives of Youthville. The meetings with SRS & Youthville were later expanded to include representatives from DCCA, and then various judges and members of the Permanency council.
Throughout these dozens of meetings, we have operated from a very simple strategy with three main goals that we've pursued in order. We have sought first to understand the system and all of its complexities, second to isolate the problems and issues, and third to design and suggest systemic and policy-oriented solutions that will impact the greatest number of people with the least amount of effort.
This system has a very steep learning curve. "Child Welfare" has an incredible number of "moving parts" which are divided between a number of independent and autonomous agencies which would easily challenge the effectiveness of any singular study or reform. Law Enforcement, the Wichita Children's Home, SRS - Social Workers, the DA's Office, the Courts, the individual Judges, DCCA, CASA's, Youthville, the Farm; each agency has a distinct role to play in Child Welfare cases. But far from being synthesized, each agency is separate and autonomous, making the final case plan a strange and expensive composite of differing philosophies, practices, court orders and recommendations that the families are mandated to comport with. And if they're not able to meet all the requirements in the prescribed time? ...well then, say goodbye to little Jesse.
As we examined the system, what we looked for were "choke points"; areas of system-wide convergence wherein a single policy or procedural change could modify or at least simplify the outcome. We found 2.
The first of these deals with the decision of whether to place Children in need of care with members of their extended family. Over the last 5 years, as we met with the various agencies and stakeholders, we heard numerous times that it is the policy of each respective agency to place children in the homes of their extended family members whenever practical. But despite that, the anecdotal evidence seemed to suggest that in far too many cases, the extended family members were being ruled out or simply passed over in favor of non-relative foster care. We looked further and further into the policies of the respective agencies and surprisingly found that the provisions for relative placement were not codified in statute. Put simply, placing children with their extended family members is considered a "best practice" but no agency is actually required to do it. To address this we have started working on a piece of legislation that we hope to have introduced in the fall session that would state that children shall be be placed with extended family members except in cases where there are extenuating circumstances that pose a risk to the health of safety of the child. By codifying this best practice into law, we hope to see a marked increase in the number of extended family placements.
The second choke-point comes in the form of the Temporary Custody Journal Entry. This one is slightly more difficult to explain. There are numerous exceptions to this rule but... Generally what happens is when there is an allegation of suspected child abuse or neglect SRS workers will screen the initial allegation. If they determine that a more substantial investigation is warranted or needed, they will contact Law Enforcement or the DA's office. When that child comes into the system, they are removed from their home by Law Enforcement and placed in the Wichita Children's home. They are kept in the Children's Home for 72 hours, during which time an SRS social worker does a more formal assessment of the child and the child's needs. That social worker records their findings in the form of an affidavit which is submitted to the DA's Office. The DA reviews the affidavit and other information provided by law enforcement and completes the Temporary Custody Journal entry which is submitted to the District Courts as a listing of recommended court orders. The Judge may modify the document at their discretion, however once signed, the orders are in effect and the family must comply with all recommendations at their own expense if the wish to be reunited with their child.
Yet it is After this point that the child is referred back to SRS and family care services such as Youthville or the Farm, and these agencies then perform a more comprehensive 20-day assessment of the child and the family to build a specific case plan. And the case plan must then include all of the court orders that were listed in the Temporary Custody Journal Entry.
None of this seems particularly onerous until you examine the Temporary Custody Journal Entry form itself. It is an 8 page document which lists a possible 69 individual court orders that are checked off by the DA's office or the courts. (NOTE: on the surface, the document appears to list only 39 court orders, but order number 18 which deals with tests, assessments, and evaluations, lists 31 individual tests and assessments that the family can be ordered to complete.) These orders may include neurological exams, parenting classes, hair follicle examinations, UA's, BA's, Dental Examinations, substance abuse evaluations, etc, all of which must be completed within the prescribed time at the family's expense. And if the family is not able to comply with the orders, even if their only impediment is financial, then the family is not reunified.
Now here's the Choke Point... Any one of these orders may be warranted in a specific case. But our system is administered in such a way as to have the tests and assessments ordered PRIOR to the comprehensive 20-day assessment and case plan that is completed by the SRS family services contractors and social workers. At the time the Journal Entry is completed, only a 72 hour cursory investigation has been completed. The Journal Entry form is designed to allow the DA's office and the Courts to order tests and assessments of various areas of inquiry so as to ensure the safety and well-being of the child. However, given that there is relatively little case-specific information available at the time the form is completed, the Journal Entry often orders numerous tests and assessments that the family does not need. If the family has no history of drug or substance abuse, then they should not have to pay for random urinalysis testing as a prerequisite for reunification. If the family has no history of violence or violent outbursts, then they should not have to pay for Anger Management classes as a prerequisite for reunification. etc...etc...
We believe that a sensible no-cost reform would be to change the Journal Entry form so that it would essentially order the family to submit to working with the SRS Family services agency and the case plan that would be derived from the 20-day comprehensive assessment. Then, once the assessment was complete and the family-specific case plan was built, that case plan could then be taken back to the courts at the end of the 20-day period and affirmed by the Judge so that the case plan would become the court order.
This change would preserve any needed or required classes or assessments, it would be driven by a detailed family-specific case plan that would not endanger the health or welfare of the children involved, and it would eliminate any unnecessary hurdles or expenses placed in the way of family reunification.
On Thursday, September 18th, Mary Dean, Carolyn Wallace and myself traveled to the State Capitol building in Topeka to meet with representatives of the Governor's office. We were joined by Pat Woods from SRS, Danielle Dempsey Swopes of the African American Affairs Commission, and Renee Wiggins of the Topeka Branch NAACP. We asked for the Governor's office to conduct a State-wide analysis of Child in need of Care policies to help affirm our analysis and to see if this process would explain the statistical disparities we see between Sedgwick County and the other counties around the State in child in need of care cases. And we are pleased to report that they responded favorably to our request.
Since returning, I have also placed a call to request a meeting with Sedgwick County DA Nola Foulston to discuss our suggested modification to the Journal Entry form. We'll keep working at it, and I'll keep you all posted as things happen.