Protecting childhood in Kansas:

What to consider when our juvenile justice system works, but our child welfare system does not.

Kansas Appleseed
Oct 24, 2019 · 7 min read

Juvenile justice and foster care are two systems that can significantly impact a child’s life and future. Kansas embraced research and national best practices to change its juvenile justice system and join the leading edge of reform. But the Kansas foster care system continues to struggle, putting children at risk.

The juvenile justice reforms are showing early success and promoting stability for kids and families in their communities. As conversations continue about how we fix foster care in Kansas, it’s important to understand the problems in Kansas foster care existed long before the juvenile justice reforms. These problems can only be resolved by a similarly brave, sweeping, evidence-based system that focuses on stabilizing youth in families who are supported within our Kansas communities.

Juvenile Justice Reform in Kansas

In Kansas, we know that incarcerating young people, especially children that exhibit mental and behavioral health issues, is bad policy with detrimental consequences for young people. In 2016, comprehensive reform of our juvenile justice system (SB367) passed in the statehouse after extensive deliberation with bipartisan groups of lawmakers, agency leaders, and national experts. Between July 2016 and July 2019, the reforms were incrementally implemented.

The goal of the juvenile justice reform was to keep children in their communities instead of incarcerating them–because research consistently demonstrates this leads to better outcomes. Since implementation, the Kansas juvenile justice system has seen the following successes:

  • Arrests of young people are down 34.5%¹
  • 87.3% reduction of young people in Kansas Department of Corrections (KDOC) custody; (FY 2015 end-of-month average custody: 1034.5 to current FY end-of-month average custody: 131.0)²
  • Approximately $38 million in savings available for more effective community-based alternatives to incarceration³

The juvenile justice reforms, which focus on community-based programs, have been more successful than the previous model. According to the Juvenile Justice Oversight Committee 2018 Annual Report, “Keeping youth in the community works[.] Before SB367 was passed, youth were placed in Youth Residential Centers (YRC-IIs). Youth placed in these facilities were unsuccessfully discharged 54% of the time. With the implementation of reforms, youth who would have been placed in YRC-IIs are now kept at home and enrolled in Community-Based Programs. These youth have been successfully discharged from the programs 63% to 88% of the time (depending on the program).”⁴

Kids cannot be blamed for a system’s failure

The crisis in the Kansas child welfare system has been building and predates juvenile justice reform.⁵ The dramatic rise in the number of kids in the child welfare system began in January 2012.

Significant legislative and administration action will be required to address the complex and structural problems facing our foster care system. The bi-partisan 2018 Child Welfare System Task Force generated a list of recommendations that largely went unaddressed during the 2019 legislative session.⁶ Strengthen Families Rebuild Hope, a coalition of organizations and individuals dedicated to reforming Kansas’s foster care system, has produced similar recommendations and research.

One of the biggest conclusions from both the legislative task force and the coalition was that the Kansas Legislature must undo the devastating harm done to anti-poverty programs and the safety net since 2015 (see A.1). These cuts to vital programs have pushed struggling families off the edge and resulted in thousands more children entering the foster care system.⁷

Consequences of the broken system fall on children in care and social workers. Children in care experience dangerously high placement instability–forcing some to sleep in offices or night-to-night placements–and are often unable to access needed mental and behavioral health services.⁸

Though the child welfare and juvenile justice systems do interact, the data tells us juvenile justice reforms are not responsible for the foster care system’s failures:

  • The number of dually adjudicated youth, youth in custody by both KDOC and Department for Children and Families (DCF), has declined since implementation from 35 kids in 2015 to 9 kids in 2018.⁹
  • As of September 2019, the total number of children in foster care had risen to 7,569.¹⁰
  • Before juvenile justice reform, dually adjudicated youth only made up 0.5% of all children in care in 2015 and declined to 0.1% in 2019.¹¹
  • The number of youth in foster care primarily for behavioral issues has declined from 237 cases in 2015 to 192 cases in 2019.¹²
  • The percentage of kids entering foster care primarily for behavioral problems has fallen to 3.75% in the current fiscal year, the lowest rate in at least a decade.¹³

A.2: Groupings for the 29 primary removal reasons tracked by DCF for children in out of home placement.

According to the June 2019 Crossover Youth Working Group Report, “KVC, a DCF Contractor, reported an increase in the number of youth entering the child welfare system due to child behavior challenges and not due to abuse or neglect. This assumption is, however, contrary to DCF referral data.” The problems in Kansas’ foster care system are further traumatizing children and placing unsustainable stress on social workers. But it is important to use data, rather than anecdotes, to guide our efforts to fix it.

Lack of data has been a consistent point of discussion for the Crossover Youth Working Group. Insufficient data can obscure the root causes of the foster care crisis. For example, we know black children are overrepresented in the foster care system,¹⁴ and this disparity has worsened every year since 2015. Today, black children are 2.24 times more likely to be in care than white children in Kansas.¹⁵ Research consistently shows black children are perceived as more adult and less innocent and are treated more punitively than their white peers.¹⁶ More robust data collection and reporting will be key to solving the problems facing our foster care system and ensuring all children benefit from a fair and effective system of justice.

Undoing the progress Kansas made in 2016 will only hurt more children, waste more state dollars, and distract from the work required to fix foster care.

Kansas Appleseed is reassured by the leadership demonstrated in the statehouse and lawmakers’ commitment to staying the course on juvenile justice reform. We’re invigorated by the work of Progeny, an advocacy group of young people who have been touched by the juvenile justice system who advocate for change in policy and how it impacts youth in the juvenile justice system. Progeny members are working to ensure the voices of those closest to the problem are a part of developing solutions.

The conversation we must now have about our failing foster care system is one that should value every child in care, reinvest in Kansas families, refuse to scapegoat children with trauma and high needs, and focus on the systemic issues holding back progress.

End notes

¹ Kansas Bureau of Investigation. “Crime Statistics.” 2019.
² Kansas Department of Corrections. “Statewide Month End Population: Placements for Youth in the Custody of DOC on the Last Day of Each Month.” and
³ Kansas Department of Corrections. Provided to Kansas Appleseed via E-mail request. Amount as of October 2019.
⁴ Kansas Juvenile Justice Oversight Committee. “ 2018 Kansas Juvenile Justice Oversight Committee Annual Report.” 2018.
⁵ Strengthen Families Rebuild Hope. “Addressing the Foster Care Crisis in Kansas” 2018.
⁶ KSN News. “Task force pushes for Child Welfare System Changes.” 2019.
⁷ “Do State TANF Policies Affect Child Abuse and Neglect?” Abstract. Donna Ginther and Michelle Johnson-Motoyama, University of Kansas, 2017.
⁸ M.B. v. Kelly. 2019.
⁹ DCF. “Crossover Youth Services Working Group Report.” 2019.
¹⁰ ibid.
¹¹ ibid.
¹² DCF. “Foster Care/Adoption Summary Reports — Children Removed into Out of Home Placement by Primary Removal Reason.” 2019.
¹³ Analyzed by Kansas Appleseed using DCF data. “Foster Care/Adoption Summary Reports — Children Removed into Out of Home Placement by Primary Removal Reason.” 2019.
¹⁴ Strengthen Families Rebuild Hope. “Addressing the Foster Care Crisis in Kansas” 2018.
¹⁵ DCF and US Census Bureau. 2019. Data analyzed by Kansas Appleseed.
¹⁶ Georgetown Law. “Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls Childhood.” 2018.


A.1 Kansas’s cuts to anti-poverty programs coincides with a substantial rise in the number of children in foster care.

A.2 Groupings for the 29 primary removal reasons tracked by DCF for children in out of home placement:

Child Behavior: Child’s Behavior Problem
Neglect: Abandonment, Death of Parent, Educational Neglect, Inadequate Housing, Incarceration of Parent, Lack of Supervision, Medical Neglect, Neglect, Physical Neglect
Physical or sexual abuse: Human Trafficking-Labor, Human Trafficking-Sex, Physical Abuse, Sexual Abuse
Substance Use: Alcohol Abuse Child, Alcohol Abuse Parent, Drug Abuse Child, Drug Abuse Parent, Infant Positive for Substances, Methamphetamine use, Parent Opioid Use, Substance Affected Infant
Parent / Child Relationship: Caretaker Inability to Cope, Child Disability, Emotional Abuse, Parent Child Conflict, Relinquishment, Runaway, Truancy

Kansas Appleseed

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We’re a statewide advocacy organization dedicated to the belief that Kansans, working together, can build thriving, inclusive, and just Kansas communities.

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