The Problem with Sebelius: Tolerating Dishonesty, for Starters

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Perhaps it’s inevitable with two wars and an economic crisis going on, but it is still disappointing that child welfare is not on President Barack Obama’s radar.

The first indication was when he took the dreadful financial incentives that promote foster care – and perhaps by accident – made them worse, rather than opting for better alternatives. The federal reimbursement rate for foster care is tied to the rate for Medicaid. When the president’s economic stimulus bill raised reimbursement for Medicaid, it automatically increased the incentive for foster care.

A clearer sign is the president’s choice to run the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Were child welfare a priority, Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D) would have been disqualified. Not only does she run the state that might well be the child removal capital of America, she has a disappointing tolerance for dishonesty – both the intellectual kind and everyday dissembling.

Let’s start with the scandal surrounding comments by Don Jordan, head of the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitative Services (SRS). Speaking in Topeka, Kan., last year to a group of families who had children taken by SRS, Jordan said the district attorney’s office in Wichita had bullied caseworkers there into hyping allegations against families in sworn affidavits, which the workers submitted to courts to justify taking away children.

According to a tape of the meeting – played by Wichita’s KSNW-TV and quoted in The Wichita Eagle – Jordan said, “In Sedgwick County, oftentimes we end up writing things because it’s what our social workers get bullied by the district attorney’s office into writing. So they really have no belief in what it says.” He added that assistant district attorneys would “yell,” “cuss,” “scream” and “threaten” his caseworkers.

The Sedgwick County (Wichita) district attorney’s office denied Jordan’s allegations. And when Jordan’s comments became public, he said he didn’t mean what he said; he was merely “pandering” to the families.

So we know Jordan made a false statement. We just don’t know which statement was false. Yet he still has his job – and, apparently, the full confidence of Sebelius.

Similarly, Sebelius has done nothing about the astoundingly high rate at which families are torn apart in Kansas.

In 2007, Kansas tore children from their families at a rate of 5.36 for every 1,000 children, according to calculations based on the state’s reports to the federal government and the state’s youth population as reported by the Census Bureau. That is well above the national average of 3.93 removals per 1,000 children. But that official figure may be as little as 20 percent of the real total. Who says so? We turn again to the district attorney’s office in Wichita. Deputy District Attorney Ron Paschal estimated that in 2006, eighty percent of the children taken from their parents were returned home before the first court hearing. And Kansas has interpreted federal regulations to mean they don’t have to count these children as entries into foster care – a view that runs counter to standard practice among most, if not all, other states.

When Paschal offered that estimate, a child and family could wait six days after removal before the first court hearing. Now the maximum is three days. So let’s assume that with this change, only half of Kansas foster care placements now are “off the books,” because the children are returned before the first court hearing. That would mean Kansas actually takes from their families more than 10 children out of every thousand – more than any other state, and more than 2½ times the national average.

If so many children are taken from their parents only to be returned again within three days, odds are that almost none of them needed to be taken in the first place. And while 72 hours isn’t much time to an adult, it’s an eternity to a small child – more than enough time to traumatize some children for life.

Yet Sebelius has either tolerated this infliction of state-sanctioned child abuse or is ignorant of it. And she has tolerated, or doesn’t know, how the state covers it up by failing to report these placements in statistics it releases to the general public and sends to the federal government.

Federal regulations require that states report as an entry into care any time a child is removed from a home for more than 24 hours and is under the “placement, care or supervision responsibility” of the child welfare agency. The regulations do not say the child must be in that agency’s “custody.”

But Kansas claims it doesn’t have to count these children until their first court hearing, because the physical act of removing the children was performed by law enforcement; Kansas officials claim the children therefore are in “police protective custody” prior to the first hearing. We can find no other state that engages in this kind of data manipulation.

This interpretation compromises the integrity of the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS), which serves as the federal child welfare database. Depending on one’s point of view, Kansas either is exploiting a loophole in AFCARS regulations or is outright cheating.

AFCARS is administered by the Administration for Children and Families (ACF), which is part of HHS. When my organization brought Kansas’ deception to the attention of ACF in 2007, the agency said Kansas was doing nothing wrong.

It’s unlikely things will get any better under the Obama Administration, as the responsibility for preserving the integrity of child welfare data might soon belong to the person who tolerated having that integrity compromised by her state.

Richard Wexler is executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform. NCCPR’s report on Kansas child welfare is at