No matter where you look or what you read, people express strong opinions about many things. It’s hard to sort it all out sometimes. But, if you are looking for that “one thing” to care deeply about, the safety and well-being of our children would be it.
Safety takes many forms. Like many of you, I grew up in Kansas, and I remember sitting in school hallways with my head covered practicing tornado drills. Today, safety for our kids may mean protocols to decrease the chance of infection from a virus. The threats change, but without a doubt, precautions need to be in place to keep our children safe, wherever they are.
Children need to feel safe at school, in our communities and especially at home. Sadly, some don’t. When that’s the case, families may require different levels of intervention, which may include temporarily removing children from their parents’ care. Thankfully, the majority of families only require additional support to keep their children safe and at home. Those supports can come from many places — extended family, friends, community programs, or the State.
Being the Regional Director for the Department for Children and Families (DCF) in your county, I want to clearly state “The State of Kansas does not want you to lose your kids.” In the Wichita Region alone, which includes your county, we have approximately 1,700 children in out-of-home care. Statewide, we have close to 6,700 children in some type of placement other than with their parents. I find that untenable.
So, I want you to know DCF is doing something (actually, several things) to disrupt the chain of events that lead to foster care. Prevention is Primary to that effort.
First, we’ve changed our approach to responding to reports of abuse and neglect. We’re attempting to become more about supporting families, rather than investigating them. We are training our workers and community educators to identify and acknowledge the difference between poverty and neglect. We’re asking mandated reporters to become “mandated supporters” and attempt to intervene with families prior to simply reporting them.
I will attest DCF has not always taken this approach. This is a practice change and a culture change. As with anything new, we may not get it right every time. But, prevention of child abuse and neglect and ultimately helping families remain intact will be our over-riding goal. Those goals drive our intentions and efforts. But, we know we cannot do this alone.
DCF has established a number of grants through the Families First Prevention Services Act. These providers allow child protection workers to refer families to services that can support them while they work to make changes that ensure their child’s safety. We believe the courts and law enforcement are more likely to leave children at home if the caregivers have protective plans in place.
We now hold Team Decision Making (TDM) meetings in most situations where a possibility exists of a child being removed from their home. These meetings are designed to give parents or caregivers a voice and help them establish plans to keep their children safe. Over the last 12 months, the TDM process has diverted 253 children from being removed from their homes, just in my region, alone.
Ultimately, I believe most parents truly want what is best for their children. Within their own family is the best place for a child to grow up, if they can do that safely. It would be foolish to believe this can happen for every child, but in cases where safety cannot be assured, DCF’s goal is for 50% of all child removals to end up in a relative’s home or with someone the child knows and trusts.
There is so much more going on within DCF. Currently, every program, process, and practice is based on prevention and child safety and well-being. We’re changing and we hope communities will see those changes reflected in the way we interact with each parent, caregiver and child.
Tom Buell is the Wichita Regional Director for Kansas Department for Children and Families.