By Dave Ranney
KHI News Service
TOPEKA — The Kansas Department for Children and Families is letting foster parents know that it has hired an ombudsman to hear their concerns.
Niomi Burget, a former aide in Gov. Sam Brownback’s office, started July 1.
“Foster parents do a tremendous service by caring for Kansas children,” DCF Secretary Phyllis Gilmore said in a prepared statement. “They deserve to have their needs met promptly so they are fully prepared and equipped to provide a loving temporary home to foster children.”
Later this month, DCF plans to send informational packets, including a newsletter, to an estimated 2,500 foster homes throughout the state, reminding foster parents of their rights.
A sampling of these rights:
• To be treated with dignity and respect.
• To be paid on time.
• To be adequately trained.
• To receive timely, accurate and pertinent information about the children in – or soon to be in – their care.
• To have input in the case planning process and to attend court hearings.
• To be able to contact their DCF worker after 5 p.m. in the event of an emergency.
• To be considered as a placement option when a child formerly in their care re-enters the system.
DCF also created an informational webpage for foster parents.
Theresa Freed, a DCF spokesperson, said the agency’s decision to hire an ombudsman and to distribute the packets was driven, in part, by several foster parents who earlier this year urged Kansas legislators to pass Senate Substitute for Senate Bill 394, a measure they called the foster parents’ bill of rights.
The bill passed the Senate but stalled in the House Judiciary Committee.
Many of the foster parents who testified in support of the bill were members of the Midwest Foster Care and Adoption Association, which has offices in Olathe and Kansas City, Mo.
On Wednesday, the association’s executive director, Lori Ross, cautiously endorsed DCF’s decision to hire an ombudsman. “It’s definitely progress, and it’s better than nothing,” she said. “But the rights that they’re proposing leave out some of what was in the foster parents’ bill of rights. We’d like to see those gaps filled.”
With SB 394, foster parents would be given a say in whether a child in their care should be returned to a parent’s or family member’s care, would be kept informed about a child’s well-being and whereabouts after he or she was removed from their care, and would be given 30-day notice before a child is removed from their home in non-emergencies. The bill also called for creating an eight- to 10-member board to advise DCF on foster care and adoption issues.
None of these proposed measures are cited in the DCF packets.
“We’re working with DCF on this,” Ross said. “We’re trying to come up with a compromise because these things are important and need to be in there.”
Ross said she plans to participate in a “bill of rights work group” that DCF has put together. Others in the group include state officials, young adults who have been in foster care, child protection workers, service providers, and members of the Kansas Foster and Adoptive Parent Association.
Saundra Hiller, president of the parent association, testified against SB 394 earlier this year. Attempts to reach Hiller for comment Wednesday were unsuccessful.
“This is a good conversation for us to have,” said Melissa Ness, a longtime children’s advocate and a member of the DCF work group. “There are some foster parents out there who don’t believe they’ve been involved enough, and there are some who feel they’ve been involved just the right amount. So we need to keep listening and try to understand what the concerns are that they feel aren’t being addressed. This is an ongoing process.”
Kansas privatized most of its foster care services in 1996, after the state-run system failed several court-ordered reviews. Between 1997 and 2013, the state paid as many as six nonprofit organizations to oversee its foster care, adoption and family preservation efforts.
Last year, DCF opted to contract with just two organizations: KVC Behavioral Healthcare of Olathe and St. Francis Community Services of Salina.
Ness, who’s also a lobbyist, represents St. Francis Community Services.
According to DCF records, more than 6,000 children were in the state’s foster care system in March, April and May – the most in state history.
The number of licensed foster homes in Kansas has remained virtually unchanged – between 2,400 and 2,500 – for the last five years.
As ombudsman, Burget’s annual salary is $52,000.
Freed said foster parents are encouraged to contact Burget at firstname.lastname@example.org or (844) 279-2306.