In November of 2015, Secretary Phyllis Gilmore, of the Kansas Department of Children and Families, announced during a legislative hearing that her agency was imposing a lowered threshold of evidence in validating cases of alleged child abuse and neglect. The standard is to be lowered to “a preponderance of the evidence” from what she claims is the current standard, “clear and convincing.” The lowered standard of evidence follows on the heels of toughened TANF assistance to families, as the agency directs an increasing amount of these funds toward unvalidated programs operated by favored private service providers. Meanwhile, by all accounts the foster care roll in Kansas continues to skyrocket. The questions of why these cnanges have been made, and of who stands to benefit from them are examined.
Kansas Governor Sam Brownback discussing the new legislation restricting TANF guidelines with Phyllis Gilmore, Secretary of the Department of Children and Families, by his side.
The Kansas Department of Children and Families – formerly known as SRS – has been very much in the news, lately, though it’s really much the same story it’s been since 2010, when last I reviewed its “reform” efforts in a rather extensive revision of my article “Eye on Kansas.”1
At that time, the Kansas Joint Committee on Children’s Issues had heard a litany of complaints from constituents who felt that their families has been ill-served by the agency and its privatized contractors.
One grandfather told the Committee that among the horrors that his granddaughter had endured while in foster care was having her hands cuffed behind her back, grey tape put over her mouth, and being locked in a dark closet for long periods of time. She nearly drowned when she was pushed off a boat, while the foster mother slept in a tent.
At the time, the committee published what it described as a partial list of their constiuents’ complaints. Among them:
- Grandparents being denied placement of their grandchildren due to their age
- The state making money when children are adopted by non-relatives
- Case managers, caseworkers and other resource personnel not being licensed or trained properly
- SRS and contractors making questionable decisions regarding the children’s care and placement
- Children’s behavior growing worse in foster care placement
- Children being abused during foster care placement
In his cover letter accompanying the report, 43rd District Representative S. Mike Kiegerl noted, “The process of reforming SRS will take more time and effort; we have just begun. I have requested several audits to determine what value the Kansas tax payer is getting for the $150+ million we’re spending on private contractors and to document the financial irregularities in the SRS budget of $1.6 billion.”
Suffice it to say that the majority of audits involving this agency ultimately revealed the usual fare. That potentially serious financial improprieties existed, and that system lacked sufficient controls to ensure compliance and fiscal accountability. Overloaded caseworkers made questionable decisions in the field, in part because they lacked proper training; in part because they lacked proper supervision; and, in part because much of the front line work force was young, inexperienced, and entirely unqualified to make the kind of decisions that they were called upon to make on a daily basis.2
All the while, severe problems with the state’s privatized foster care system continued to come to light, with private foster care providers being reshuffled, pushed out of the system, and eventually whittled down to only two survivors, under whom some of the previous private providers continued to work on a sub-contract basis.3
WHERE WE ARE TODAY
Kansas drew national attention this year when its Legislature approved House Bill 2258 in April of this year, putting into State law the very restrictions on the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.
The “HOPE Act,” as the legislation is commonly called, goes further than that, and it is significant that DCF Secretary Phyllis Gilmore was photographed sitting aside Governor Sam Brownback when he signed the bill into law. 4 The Governor also had Gilmore by his side during the public announcement of the signing of the bill.
Various summaries have been provided of the new legislation by newpapers and bloggers, however it may be best to review the relevant portion of House Bill 2258 itself. The new legislation provides that,
No TANF cash assistance shall be used to purchase alcohol, cig-arettes, tobacco products, lottery tickets, concert tickets, professional or collegiate sporting event tickets or tickets for other entertainment events intended for the general public or sexually oriented adult materials. No TANF cash assistance shall be used in any retail liquor store, casino, gaming establishment, jewelry store, tattoo parlor, massage parlor, body piercing parlor, spa, nail salon, lingerie shop, tobacco paraphernalia store, vapor cigarette store, psychic or fortune telling business, bail bond com-pany, video arcade, movie theater, swimming pool, cruise ship, theme park, dog or horse racing facility, parimutuel facility, or sexually oriented business or any retail establishment which provides adult-oriented enter-tainment in which performers disrobe or perform in an unclothed state for entertainment, or in any business or retail establishment where minors under age 18 are not permitted. TANF cash assistance transactions for cash withdrawals from automated teller machines shall be limited to $25, per transaction and to one transaction per day. No TANF cash assistance shall be used for purchases at points of sale outside the state of Kansas.6
DCF Secretary Phyllis Gilmore would appear to be a very strong supporter of the legislation. Indeed, it has been reported that the Governor and Gilmore “spoke out against national criticism that has been levied against HB 2258 in recent weeks,” the Wichita Eagle reported.5
the facebook posting
Perhaps in view of these events, it should come as no surprise that DCF Secretary Phyllis Gilmore herself wrote and posted a message supporting the legislation on the Department of Children and Families Services Facebook page.
“What should receive even greater support than welfare to work policies is a policy that prohibits the use of taxpayer-funded benefits for welfare recipients to spend their cash assistance on luxury items that some taxpayers can’t even afford — such as cruises and trips to the tattoo parlor or nail shop. Those who oppose this commonsense policy change fundamentally oppose welfare reform.”
Kansas DCF, April 10, 2015, via Facebook
Is this only the Kansas Department for Children and Families expressing its well known disdain for providing genuinely helping services to families, or is this part of a more calculated and specific agenda? Just how – and, more importantly why – did this all come about?
While the claims raised in the Department’s tirade may sound somewhat plausible to those who are unfamiliar with the issues, the Hutchison News examined the claims in some detail, explaining that,
The real problem is no one really can point to instances of people using TANF to go on cruises. We’re in Kansas. There’s no ocean. The law also prevents people from using their accounts to pay for psychics, theme parks or swimming pools. Has this really been a problem?
The law’s only practical purpose is to further humiliate fellow Kansans who, many through no fault of their own, are struggling just to survive. It’s meant to codify the stereotype of poor people as shiftless, lazy cheaters. What we need is compassion for people who have suffered through the greatest economic disaster in generations.7
Indeed, the Governor himself has said that, “The primary focus of the bill is to get people back to work, Because that’s where the real benefit is. getting people off public assistance and back into the marketplace with the dignity and far more income there than the pittance that government gives them.”8
Just as the Governor himself conceded, TANF benefits truly are a “pittance,” as illustrated in the chart below. This makes it difficult to believe that legislators themselves actually believe that it is even remotely possible for TANF recipients to live anything approaching a life of luxury. And, if the majority of legislators do believe this, it shows a remarkable disconnect between them and the reality experienced daily by many of their own constituents.
There are other reasons for the law that extend beyond merely trying to humiliate struggling families. The demonization the poor is part of a calculated strategy on the part of child welfare agencies, which have historically diverted the meager funds intended to help families and children to promote their own bureaucratic expansion and survival. As sociologist John Hagedorn explains:
The expansion of “social services” in the 1970s had little correlation to improved services for children and families. Rather the chief beneficiaries of increased social service spending have been urban social service bureaucracies, who have used the funds to adapt to a punative climate, expanding their capacity to investigate poor families and remove children from their homes.9
By perpetuating myths about the “undeserving poor,” they appear to be so very unworthy that they are seen as being undeserving of their own children. Thus, it becomes easier for child welfare agencies to divert the funds intended to help families in crisis to programs run by favored service providers.
One DCF-generated document in particular would bear this out.
A CLOSER LOOK
According to the State of Kansas Temporary Assistance for Needy Families State Plan, last updated on October 5, 2015, Kansas diverts TANF funds to programs such as Home Visitation Programs, in-home family therapy, case management, custody supervision, parenting education, homemaker education, advocacy, attendant care, and respite care, among others.
Kansas Early Head is a program that claims to promote “healthy prenatal outcomes for pregnant women,” The program is said to aid “in school readiness by enhancing children’s physical, emotional and cognitive development” ostensibly helping parents reach their own goals, “including that of economic independence.”
TANF funds are also used in Kansas for programs such as Communities in School of Mid-America, a program that provides “case management services to at-risk students which focus on improving academics, behavior, attendance and graduation rates.”
The Kansas Alliance of Boys and Girls Club is another beneficiary of TANF funds, the idea being that the clubs will provide “a comprehensive abstinence based teen pregnancy prevention and education program to at-risk youth” in certain defined areas of the State. Among the other promised wonders of this program is that curriculums will be utilized “to develop skills to resist alcohol, tobacco and other drugs as well as pregnancy prevention and premature sexual activity through abstinence-based curriculum.”
Kansas also uses TANF funding for Healthy Marriage Education, a program that “provides an array of services to include one-on-one individual and couple support, marriage education and activities to strengthen family bonds and healthy relationships.”10
THE NATIONAL PERSPECTIVE
According to a report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, by 2011 several states had imposed harsh reductions in TANF support to families despite high unemployment and unprecedented need. These cuts affected “700,000 low-income families that include 1.3 million children; these families represent over one-third of all low-income families receiving TANF nationwide.”
The report notes that at least five states — California, Washington, South Carolina, Wisconsin, New Mexico and the District of Columbia – had “cut monthly cash assistance benefits for TANF families, reducing already very low benefits.”11
Many of these deep cuts in the TANF program came earlier than that. An information brief prepared for the Minnesota House of Representatives in 2002 explains that, “The TANF program sets a lifetime assistance limit of 60 months for families that include an adult head of household who receives assistance using federal TANF dollars, in whole or in part. States may impose a shorter limit and, to date, 20 states have done so.”12
These cuts continue to this day, with states such as Kansas and Wisconsisn riding “the crest of a wave of welfare bills across the country calling for drug tests and restrictions on what poor people can buy with the debit cards used to distribute benefits,” the Huffington Post explains. Indeed, the situation is getting so bad that Huffington Post writer Arthur Delaney entitled his analysis “Wisconsin GOP Advances Bills Controlling How People On Welfare Eat And Pee.”13
a modest pullback
In a prepared press release issued on August 4 of this year, DCF Secretary Phyllis Gilmore announced that “the federal Administration for Children and Families (ACF), a division of the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, has now provided guidance that the previously-enacted $25 ATM limit for cash assistance clients would seem to prevent a needy TANF family from having “adequate access to their cash assistance.’ The guidance was provided by email on Aug. 3 to DCF, as part of a list of questions regarding the limit, after DCF submitted its TANF state plan last month.”14
“This agency did not propose the $25 cash assistance withdrawal limit,” Gilmore said. “This was an amendment offered during legislative debate. At the time of discussion on the floor, DCF advised against such a low limit. I’m pleased that we now have the guidance needed to rescind this measure.”
That portion of the legislation in and of itself created great difficulties for many recipients. As ATMs do not generally dispense $5 bills, the $25 daily limit was in practice a $20 per day cap. The state charges a $1 fee for all ATM withdrawals, meaning that in order to withdraw $200, a recipient would have to pay out $10 in fees to the state. And, banks frequently charge fees of their own for the ATM transactions.
The drastic restrictions on TANF paved the runway for another problem that is certain to impact on many families living on the financial margins: The continued threat of unwarranted child removal.
In November of this year, the Capitol-Journal reported that,
The state agency tasked with investigating child abuse plans to lower the amount of evidence needed to substantiate a claim of abuse or neglect.
Department for Children and Families Secretary Phyllis Gilmore told lawmakers Tuesday the agency will decrease the standard of evidence it uses when investigating from “clear and convincing” to “preponderance of the evidence.”
In effect, the change will mean that only 51 percent of the evidence needs to point to abuse or neglect actually taking place in order for a claim to be substantiated.15
There you have it – the magic formula for removing a greater number of children from their homes, and tossing them into Kansas’ chaotic and dysfunctional privatized foster care system. Like a candle with two wicks aglow, DCF and its private service providers stand to benefit financially. First, by virtue of the TANF funds intended to assist families being diverted toward pet projects with both questionable outcomes and a lack of an empirical evidence base. Second, DCF and its providers stand to gain handsome profits from the flow of federal funds for foster care under Title IV-E of the Social Security Act, which provides the lion’s share of foster care funding.
By all accounts, the removal of children from their homes in Kansas has been on the increase for some time, with the average daily number of children in state care being over 6,000. If the chart below – which plots foster care placement trends in Kansas over a period of some years – were a stock chart, I would view it as a bullish opportunity to invest my money in an uptrend that looks rock solid. But this is not a stock chart, it is a chart that tracks the misery of over 6,000 children in care at any given point in time, as well as reflecting the angst of the families from whom they have been separated.
Parents as Teachers Funding: TANF. Kansas Department for Children and Families. (March 13, 2015).
HOPE ACT Implementation Plan. Department for Children and Family Services. (August 7, 2015).
TANF: Troubling Trends in Kansas. Kansas Action for Children. (2014).
2015 Report to the Governor and Kansas Legislature. Kansas Employment First Oversight Commission. (2015).
Gene Falk, The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) Block Grant: Responses to Frequently Asked Questions. Congressional Research Service. (Nov 2015).
Kansas Could Do More For Poor Families With Children: An Analysis Of Tanf Budget And Policies. United Community Services of Johnson County. (December 17, 2013).
Randi Hall. TANF 101: TANF in the Great Recession. CLASP/ (July 2015).
1. Regarding the change of the agency’s name, in February of 2012, Gov. Sam Brownback appointed former legislator Phyllis Gilmore to be secretary of the Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services. SRS was to be renamed the Department for Children and Families under an executive reorganization order also announced by the Governor on that day. Phil Cauthon, “Brownback appoints Gilmore new SRS secretary, unveils ERO,” KHI News Service, (February 03, 2012). In early July, 2012, an editorial in the Topeka Capital-Journal explained regarding the name change, “We won’t go so far as to say the acronym SRS was toxic, but the mere mention of it was enough to raise the hackles of some who had dealt with the agency and come away disappointed or angry.” Editorial staff, “Goodbye, SRS,” Topeka Capital-Journal (July 4, 2012).
3. In 2005, the Kansas Children’s Service League lost its $15 million foster care contract with the state, and had its $33.6 million adoption contract reduced to $3.5 million. SRS gave the contract to KVC Behavioral Health Care, also known as Kaw Valley Center. At the time, the new contracts reduced the number of foster care contractors to four, including KVC, St. Francis Academy, United Methodist Youthville, and The Farm, Inc. The four were to be paid to handle adoptions as well. Dave Ranney, “Foster care agency loses contract,” Lawrence Journal World (January 28, 2005). After July 1, 2013, only two private providers remained; KVC Behavioral Health Care and St. Francis Community Services. The child welfare agency, now known as the Kansas Department for Children and Families, chose to not renew contracts with TFI Family Services or United Methodist Youthville. Dave Ranney, “Foster care contracts to change hands Monday,” KHI News Service, (June 28, 2013). As of March, 2015, The Farm, Inc. – also known as TFI Family Services – was the subject of at least three federal lawsuits, and it was also reported that, “Even after losing its state contract in 2013, TFI continues to operate as a subcontractor for organizations with state contracts and sponsors about 700 foster homes.” Jonathan Shorman, “TFI failed to disclose child’s mental health history to adopting family, lawsuit alleges,” Topeka Capital-Journal, (March 22, 2015).
4. Tim Carpenter, “Gov. Sam Brownback signs controversial welfare legislation,” Topeka Capital-Journal, (April 16, 2015).
5. Bryan Lowry, “Gov. Sam Brownback signs welfare restrictions into law,” Wichita Eagle, (April 16, 2015).
6. Kansas Senate Substitute for House Bill No. 2258, described as “AN ACT concerning social welfare; Kansas department for children and families; eligibility requirements for assistance; amending K.S.A. 17-2263, 17-5828, 39-709b, 59-1301 and 59-3504 and K.S.A. 2014 Supp. 9-1215, 9-1216, 16-311, 17-2264, 17-5829, 39-702, 39-709, 39-709c, 39-753, 39-756a, 59-2222, 59-2247, 59-2801 and 59-3086 and repealing the existing sections; also repealing K.S.A. 39-7,101, 39-7,106, 39-7,107, 39-7,110 and 75-5364 and K.S.A. 2014 Supp. 39-7,102, 39-7,103, 39-7,104, 39-7,105, 39-7,108, 39-7,109 and 39-7,122.
7. “Penalizing the poor,” Hutchinson News, (April 10, 2015). Unfortunately, the article is concealed behind a paywall.
8. “Gov. Sam Brownback signs welfare restrictions into law.” See note 5.
9.John M. Hagedorn, “Forsaking Our Children: Bureaucracy and Reform in the Child Welfare System.” (Chicago: Lake View Press, 1995).
10. State of Kansas Temporary Assistance for Needy Families State Plan, Kansas Department of Children and Families, (October 5, 2015).
11. Liz Schott and L. Pavetti. “Many states cutting TANF benefits harshly despite high unemployment and unprecedented need.” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (2011).
13. Arthur Delaney, “Wisconsin GOP Advances Bills Controlling How People On Welfare Eat And Pee,” Huffington Post, as updated on May 15, 2015.
14. Secretary Phyllis Gilmore, “DCF Receives Federal Guidance, $25 ATM Limit Rescinded,” Department of Children and Families, August 4, 2015.
15. Jonathan Shorman, “Kansas DCF plans to lower evidence standard in evaluating child abuse,” Topeka Capital-Journal (November 17, 2015).