“This is an emergency. . . . we must fix this now.” So warned Kansas governor Laura Kelly as she took office in 2019, speaking about her state’s broken child-welfare system. At the time, Kansas had the highest percentage of kids missing from foster care. Many children were sleeping in child-welfare offices. One 15-year-old who ran away from an office turned up dead a few days later. Kelly’s opponent in this November’s gubernatorial election, Kansas attorney general Derek Schmidt, is demanding to know what she’s done to improve things over the past four years. The answer, unfortunately, is not much. But Schmidt seems to have no ideas of his own, either.
It’s rare to see child welfare become a major issue in a statewide gubernatorial race. (At best, a first lady sometimes will take it up as a pet cause.) Unless there is a high-profile child fatality or lawsuit, most politicians and policymakers would rather not engage. The Left prefers to pontificate about structural racism in child welfare and the need for more money—as if poverty, not family dysfunction and substance abuse, were the key contributing factor to child maltreatment. The Right barely engages at all.
Kelly says things have improved under her watch. The number of kids in foster care has declined, with 1,000 fewer than four years ago. But Kelly acknowledges that the state hasn’t made much of a dent in the number of kids sleeping in child-welfare offices, which means that her approach has failed to help the most vulnerable kids. Typically, the children sleeping in offices tend to be older, with behavioral or other mental-health problems. Many have already been through multiple foster homes. Reducing the overall number of kids in care doesn’t do much to change the size of this subset because these kids have nowhere else to go.
Many jurisdictions have reduced the total number of kids in foster care over the past decade, but the problem of kids sleeping in hotels or offices has gotten worse. Take Philadelphia: in the past five years, the city has cut in half the rate of children going into foster homes and other placements. But according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, “in the fiscal year ended June 30, more than 300 children spent at least one night at Philadelphia’s child welfare office. That number roughly tripled over previous years.” It gets worse. As the paper details:
Calls to police from the building reached a five-year high in June, when more than 80 calls were made for reasons including disorderly conduct, person with a weapon, missing persons, assaults, and break-ins. A list of eight “AWOL Youth” that circulated in June, obtained by The Inquirer, shows that a supervisor ordered security to bar those children from entering the building unless a childcare worker gave authorization to admit them.
When asked about children without placements, advocates have repeatedly claimed that the solution involves doing more in the way of prevention and keeping more kids with their families. So why doesn’t reducing the number of kids in foster care yield better results? The children sleeping in offices are the ones who are unsafe with their families and who need serious mental-health care and behavioral rehabilitation.
Unfortunately, many states have shut down congregate-care facilities or have simply failed to provide enough funding for these institutions. The federal government, too, is making it harder for them to receive Medicaid reimbursement. And low wages make it harder to retain qualified staff.
Some of the most troubled kids are involved with the juvenile-justice system. But that route has also been increasingly closed off. In 2016, Kansas passed a bipartisan criminal-justice reform bill. Five years later, a report found “great progress. . . . The annual average number of youth entering the justice system fell about 24%, the average annual number of youth in custody fell about 88% and youth prison incarcerations dropped 37%.” Philadelphia, meantime, has cut the number of kids going into placements for delinquency by 80 percent.
What happened to those kids? Are they all back safe at home? Common sense tells us probably not. If other states are any example, many of these youths have entered the child-welfare system. In Arizona, a significant number of kids in the juvenile-justice system have been diverted into child welfare; this is a travesty on many fronts. Sending juvenile defendants into the foster-care system puts them into close contact with our most vulnerable populations. One former supervisor in Philadelphia reported the danger of keeping younger kids and teens together in offices. Moreover, the child-welfare system lacks any kind of rehabilitative services that juvenile delinquents are supposed to receive to prevent criminal behavior from escalating.
So what should conservatives who care about the child-welfare system do? For starters, they should oppose criminal-justice reforms that keep kids out of juvenile detention. In addition to being a danger to the public, these young people will become a danger to foster children while standing little chance of rehabilitation. Closing congregate-care facilities is another big problem. Though it’s not popular to champion such institutions, many do yeoman work in helping kids achieve the stability they need to return home or get adopted. No doubt, some kids in foster care could safely return to their families—but the thousands of young people across the country sleeping in child-welfare offices are not among them. We do them no favors by pretending otherwise.