In January of 2021, a federal judge in Kansas approved a settlement agreement in the class action lawsuit, M.B. v. Howard, brought on behalf of children in foster care by Children’s Rights and other child welfare advocates, including the National Center for Youth Law, where I first became involved in the case. The lawsuit was filed to end the dangerous practice of moving children from one foster care placement to the next — anywhere from ten to over 100 times while in state custody and to ensure that children who have experienced deep trauma have access to mental health services they desperately need. The Impact Fund was an early believer in the importance of this case, and its grant was vital to bringing it forward.
I remember talking to children and families early in our work in Kansas and being shocked by the stories they told. How children were regularly dropped off at a new foster home night after night without being offered so much as a warm meal or a shower before being picked up the next morning. They would then spend their day in a case worker’s office with nothing to do. Some children cycled through upwards of ninety placements due to this horrifying practice. This is an experience that we know devastates youth emotionally and psychologically, and interferes with child brain development. It was impossible for me to fathom how we could be doing that to any child.
A year after the settlement, the data on progress in Kansas is unclear and sometimes conflicting. The Department for Children and Families (DCF) reports substantial drops in the total number of children housed in child welfare offices. However, we have evidence from community partners that children are still spending far too much of their day in child welfare offices and many placements remain inappropriate and unstable. Also, there appears to be a continuing trend of diverting youth into the juvenile justice system, instead of providing those in mental distress with the care they need.
That trend was tragically born out just months after our settlement was approved when, in September of 2021, 17-year-old Cedric Lofton died from injuries he received at the hands of staff at a juvenile detention center after being removed from the foster home where he was living. His death was ruled a homicide.
The reforms to the Kansas child welfare system are coming too late for Cedric, and that leaves all of us engaged in this work angry, frustrated and heartbroken. But his name and his memory are at the center of all that we are doing to acknowledge the historic and systemic racism and oppression that exists and must be confronted – not just in Kansas, but in child welfare systems across the country. There is still a long road ahead for Kansas to provide measurable, durable improvements to how they care for children in government care. There are glimmers of hope, but Children’s Rights will not look away until the state dramatically reforms its system, and breaks the cycle of grave outcomes for children like Cedric. The Kansas settlement calls for many significant practice improvements and requires a concrete demonstration through data that foster care placements are stabilizing and improving. But beyond the typical child welfare settlement requirements, there is another innovative improvement that I believe will play a critical role in the progress that needs to be made: a community advisory board that recommends ways to improve the system, and serves as an independent check in assessing and validating compliance with the settlement agreement.
The independent advisory board, made up of parents, youth, caregivers, foster care providers and others with direct experience of the foster care system, represents a power shift. It allows for public comment and transparency and recognizes the corrosive effect of a government system that thinks it knows best, to the detriment of the people it serves. The court has wisely redistributed that power to enlist the ideas and recommendations of those with lived expertise in rebuilding a system that has failed them. It is fitting that one of the board’s first actions will be to call for its own review of the circumstances surrounding the death of Cedric Lofton.
A well-functioning, just system that preserves families, protects children, and helps them heal, is the greatest tribute to Cedric’s memory. Thanks to the Impact Fund’s early support, we will be in Kansas for as long as it takes to ensure that vision becomes a reality.
Leecia Welch is the Deputy Litigation Director at Children’s Rights.