When we do nothing, a child pays the price.

It was difficult to read the article in the Kansas City Star last week about a thirteen year old girl in foster care who was sexually assaulted by an older male in foster care while waiting in an agency office to find a foster home placement for the night. It is a heartbreaking reality for this child who was removed from trauma at home to then experienced trauma while in the “safe” custody of adults and the agencies who were charged to care for her. As a mom it was difficult to process, and I was just as an outsider reading an article. I’m sure that all of those involved in the situation in that office were also heartbroken. The reason they are involved in the child welfare business is because they want to help children. Clearly they would never want to be part of a situation that caused harm to a child. Throughout the week I read various responses and criticisms on social media regarding fault, liability, and punishment and I won’t go into that or add my opinion here. But I do want to share that the story left me with a nagging feeling that we all have a shared burden to respond.

When we do nothing, it is impossible to meet the needs of our children because lack of response to a need makes the burden fall on one person, or one agency, or one critical moment. How many times have we heard over the last few years that there is a mounting foster care crisis in our State? Why is that and what have we done to respond?

Prevention. We continue to hear of the needs for stronger preventative services and an improved foster care system, and yet we think of it as a giant problem we can’t respond to as individuals — and so we do nothing. Kansas spends 3% of its state and local child welfare dollars on prevention compared to the national average of 17%.1. Over the last 5 years, Kansas increased foster care spending 100x more than prevention spending, and we still can’t keep up. In addition, we have seen an increase in physical neglect, which is parents’ inability to meet children’s basic needs. We need to help families manage risk factors for child maltreatment by increasing families’ access to food and cash assistance, home visiting for new parents, child care, job training, healthcare, and more. We have also have a need for mental health services funding and substance abuse treatment so we can help these parents and keep children out of foster care as a preventative measure. If you have a burden to help families and volunteer on the preventative side to foster care, then find a way to get involved. Helping just one family matters.

Overburdened Foster System. We know our foster care system itself is overburdened and we need to respond. In Kansas, we have an increase of children in foster care with high needs and an inability to care for them. A 2016 juvenile justice reform bill intended to shift juveniles from detention to treatment. Due to lack of community resources, many of these youth entered foster care. The number of licensed beds at youth psychiatric residential treatment facilities (PRTFs) decreased 65% during 2011–2017 from an original 780 to just 272. Many are serving youth with more serious mental health issues during much shorter lengths of stay than historically seen. In addition, due to the high volume of children in care, about 7,700, and less than 2,700 foster families in our State, there simply are not enough homes to place these children quickly, safely, and with single-family homes who are matched for the best interest of the child and the foster family. With a shortage of foster homes, child placing agencies are forced to place children in short-term homes, far away from their counties or origin, and they do not have the luxury of waiting to match families and children based on their needs and experience. Due to our overburdened system, foster families quit in Kansas in less than 10 months, much of this is from lack of support. If you have a burden to help foster children and foster families to improve our foster care system, then find a way to get involved. Helping just one foster family matters. Helping just one foster child matters.

When we wait until there is a tragedy like what happened to the innocent 13 year old girl, then we are too late. We needed to intervene and help her family before she was placed in foster care. We needed to get involved with family prevention services to ensure families have what they need to care for their children. We needed to answer the call to become a licensed foster home so that child placing agencies had an abundance of homes waiting to take in a child. We needed to sign up to support a foster family by bringing them meals, giving respite care, helping with expenses, driving children to appointments, giving a listening ear… so that the foster family can keep doing the work they are called to so we don’t lose 500 foster homes a year in Kansas. We needed to increase support of our social workers so they aren’t over-burdened with long hours, overtime, impossible case loads, all while taking on secondary trauma so that they have lapses in judgment to leave children unattended in an agency office. When we each look away and do nothing, or when we are content that simply complaining and criticizing our child welfare system, child placing agencies, case workers, or legislators constitutes “doing something,” then we have failed. We will go from crisis to crisis and inevitably it will be an innocent child that pays the price.

OR….we can all do something! We can each decide what part we will play and share this heavy burden of brokenness. We can offer support and healing by each doing our calling. At Joy Meadows we have a calling to come alongside this overburdened foster care system in Kanas. We want to support foster children, foster families, case workers, social workers, DCF, and child placing agencies by doing our part. By building a community of foster homes we want to: (1) Increase capacity — at a basic level, we will be able to provide more beds for more children in foster care; (2) Create stability for the child – Children can be placed near their county of origin with their siblings, stay in one placement where they can receive support services immediately, reducing trauma; (3) Sustain qualified foster parents – Keep experienced foster parents by removing financial and emotional obstacles to taking on multiple foster children in one home and give them on-site support and training to handle challenging behaviors of children and the associated secondary trauma to caregivers so they do not burn out. We will network with existing organizations, care providers, and agencies so that we can maximize resources available to children in care. We will also strive to reach permanency for the child more quickly through our model by: (1) Working with the biological parent for reintegration as all siblings will be placed with 1 family, thus providing more opportunity to connection and mentoring; and (2) If children are not reintegrated, since they have been placed together the entire time in care they are much more likely to have an adoptive resource through their existing foster home or by those who have interacted with them at Joy Meadows. There is SO much we can do! We are eager, excited, humbled, and ready to do our part. Thank you for your ongoing support of Joy Meadows. And we thank you for listening to what God is calling you to do, and for your response.

-Sarah Oberndorfer,

Foster mom, Co-founder and Chair of Board of Directors of Joy Meadows