Gov. Laura Kelly's budget calls for lawmakers to bolster child welfare operations with an additional $16 million in funding for staffing and services.
The governor in her State of the State address blamed years of mismanagement in the Department for Children and Families for allowing "a moral crisis" to persist.
Her budget director, Larry Campbell, outlined initiatives in a briefing Thursday with legislators. The plan calls for $4 million for an additional 55 full-time employees, $4.6 million to help coordination of support to families, and $7.4 million for prevention services.
"This will not end the child welfare crisis," Campbell said, "but it is a good first step."
The number of Kansas children in foster care spiked during the past eight years, overwhelming social workers, Kelly said. Children were sleeping in office space, dying and suffering from abuse.
As a state senator, Kelly served on the Child Welfare System Task Force, studying the problems and looking for answers.
"There is not an easy answer," Kelly said, "but we must do what we can to protect our kids. This is an emergency. These are our children in our communities facing abuse, neglect and worse."
House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, cautioned that compromise will be easier if emotion is left out of the discussion.
“I think it’s important to put our kids first, and it’s never healthy to play the blame game," he said.
Kelly's budget anticipates a 14.5 percent cost increase to account for the number of children added to the foster care system, a figure that has grown by 45 percent since 2011.
The 55 new jobs are being added to help reduce caseloads for social workers, although some lawmakers raised questions about how those jobs will be filled.
"Any time that we're improving that system is a big deal — that's a positive thing," said Rep. Brenda Landwehr, R-Wichita. "It's just the issue of what type of workers do we need. Is it investigators, is it clinical social workers, etc.? Do we have the numbers in order to fill those positions, because we have a workforce shortage in social workers, especially on the clinical side."
Rep. Kathy Wolfe Moore, D-Kansas City, said easing caseloads for social workers is "the single best thing we can do."
Kelly also wants to use federal matching grants made available through the Families First Prevention Services Act, which Congress passed last year.
Christie Appelhanz, executive director of the Children's Alliance of Kansas, said the law fundamentally shifts how child welfare can be financed. In the past, federal money only could be used after abuse or neglect. Now, the funds can be used on programs designed to prevent children from entering the foster care system.
For example, there are existing programs that provide home visitation to parents in need of help or allow mothers seeking substance abuse treatment to bring their children with them. Those efforts could be expanded.
Appelhanz said child welfare advocates wanted the state to invest $30 million this year, but the previous administration was considering $800,000 in the first year and $9.4 million over three years.
Kelly's request for $7.4 million is a good place to start, Appelhanz said, but "certainly not where we hope we ultimately end up."
"As we invest in prevention we expect to see the number of kids in foster care come down," Appelhanz said. "We hope to take those savings and continue to invest."