By Tim Carpenter
May 6, 2016

The record-high number of foster care children in Kansas led to a renewed call by the administration of Gov. Sam Brownback for expansion of the state’s network of foster parents, especially for care of youth with physical or behavioral challenges.

“We want every child to have a loving environment to grow up in,” said first lady Mary Brownback, who spoke at the Capitol to mark Foster Care Month. “There is a great need in the foster care system.”

The Kansas Department for Children and Families has jurisdiction over 6,685 children in foster care who were removed from a family in crisis. Out-of-home placements in Kansas have climbed from 6,167 in June 2014, 5,303 in June 2012 and 5,227 in June 2010.

The number in foster care has increased during Brownback’s tenure as governor, but DCF officials say the issue has been a slowdown in movement of youth out of foster care rather than escalation of enrollment in the system. In the past, DCF also attributed the rise of youth in foster care to better reporting of child neglect and abuse.

Shannon Cotsoradis, president and chief executive officer of Kansas Action for Children, said work by Kansas lawmakers to narrow eligibility for government-funded public assistance and to weaken the overall safety net for at-risk families fueled movement of children to foster care.

“It isn’t unlike all of the other challenges we are seeing as we put more pressure on Kansas’ most economically fragile families,” Cotsoradis said in an interview. “Policy changes in recent years have resulted in children and families losing access to the state safety net at alarming rates.”

She said the political assault on family assistance was exacerbating circumstances leading to children being placed in foster care.

Kansas has 2,750 licensed foster care homes, but DCF’s objective is to develop a deeper pool, sufficient for each child to have an immediate foster family match within the child’s home community. Foster parents must pass background checks, possess adequate income, complete training and other requirements leading to a license issued by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

The average age of a Kansas child in foster care is 8. Nine out of 10 in foster care are placed in a “family-like setting,” DCF said. The agency reported one-third of youth in Kansas’ foster care system are placed with a relative.

About half of children are part of a formal process to be reintegrated with family, while 350 children are available for adoption.

Derek Sharp, a Topekan who has parented foster children with developmental disabilities, said at a Statehouse event on Thursday symbiotic relationships were formed through participation in Kansas’ foster care programs.

“Being a foster parent is like a bridge because the giving goes both ways,” he said. “We have been able to provide things for the kids that they wouldn’t have otherwise had, but they have brought to our family amazing things.”

Manhattan High School student Peyton Peterson, who has been in foster care since age 7, intends to attend Kansas State University.

“The opportunity I have wouldn’t have been there for me without the foster care system,” Peterson said. “I plan to become a biochemist, because I want to make a difference in the world.”

The first lady said one goal of state government was to expand a faith-based mentoring program now serving low-income adults to include foster youth in their late teens.

“We also want to help every youth aging out of the system to be able to have a mentor who will help them as they transition into adulthood,” she said.

Read more from the Topeka Capital Journal.