Let’s get one thing clear, right at the start: Juvenile justice reform was the right thing to do for Kansas children and the state as a whole. The prison system is no place for children, and lawmakers’ willingness to find new solutions is profoundly praiseworthy.
That being said, testimony heard before a legislative committee last week seems deserving of attention. As reported by The Topeka Capital-Journal’s Sherman Smith and KCUR’s Peggy Lowe: “Two state foster care providers told a legislative committee Wednesday this influx of children has severely overwhelmed an already taxed system, leaving a chaotic situation where kids are sleeping in offices and providers are wondering if they can ever find them a home.”
The committee should make sure — and the state itself should investigate — to see if these claims are true. Was the system in Kansas prepared for the inevitable aftereffects of juvenile justice reform. If it wasn’t prepared, who is responsible, and what can be done to remedy the situation? If it was prepared, does that mean that foster care providers are offering misleading accounts?
In the words of Rep. Russ Jennings, chairman of the panel: “The child welfare system in Kansas is deeply troubled. But trouble within the child welfare system is not news.”
Legislators should seek to understand if juvenile justice reform is being used as a scapegoat for other, well-documented issues in the state’s child welfare system. The system’s issues predate these reforms, after all. But it’s also fair to ask if foster families and other facilities are prepared for the real needs of children coming out of the corrections system. These youths need places to stay, quality psychiatric services and caring adults.
Unfortunately, the same cutbacks and austerity that eroded so many other foundations of state government also eroded the foster care system. It’s easy to imagine that some of these children experienced extra challenges.
The stories, especially of children who ran away and fell into sex trafficking, are heartbreaking. Lawmakers and advocates are rightfully angry. We have the ability to change those stories, though, We can make sure that children have the resources they need. We can make sure the foster care system is fully funded and effective.
It will take time, effort, and bipartisan leadership. It will take a sincere effort to embrace what has worked in the past — as juvenile justice reform has for so many children — while making sure it has the resources needed to succeed in the future.