Failure to invest in the systems that support at-risk youth in the state is a policy decision to not invest in the future of all Kansas children. The 2016 youth justice reforms have not been allowed to fulfill their promise to Kansas families and their children. This is a larger systemic failure of the lack of mental health services in the state. Shifting blame for the woes of the foster care system onto the reforms obscures the lack of state investment in at-risk youth. It is a reaction to a symptom, not a treatment for the overall disease of a failing mental health system.
Reforms are seeing success despite the broken promises of investment in Kansas’ at-risk youth.
Outcomes for Kansas children continue to support the importance and success of reforms and the use of evidence-based interventions to achieve successful outcomes and reduce recidivism. For example, most children involved in the justice system are referred to Immediate Intervention Programs (IIP), mental health services, or other treatment programs. Further, the reduction of reentry since youth justice reforms in 2016 has shown these programs have more success and better outcomes than incarceration does.
These successes have been realized despite an ongoing mental health crisis in the state, limited community-based resources for youth involved in the justice system, and legislative efforts to roll back reforms. Since the reforms' initial years, officials have failed to invest fully in their promises of restorative and equitable justice. Deep tax cuts and COVID-19 economic conditions caused pressure on the state budget, and lawmakers have shifted $21 million from money for justice-involved youth services and community programs to other areas of the budget. Kansas officials must still fulfill their commitment and promise to the state's children with actions and investment. Only then will we be able to fully evaluate the true success of justice reforms for Kansas children.
Blaming youth justice reforms for the struggles in the foster care system is misleading and unfactual.
State foster care leaders have blamed their struggles to find stable youth placements on the youth justice reforms. They argue that they have an influx of children entering their care who otherwise would have been treated under the youth justice system before 2016. They say these children have behavioral problems that they are not equipped to handle and cannot find placements for.. Yet, there is no evidence that the number of children entering foster care due to child behavior problems has increased since the justice reforms. The trend since youth justice reforms shows the number of children entering foster care due to behavioral problems has trended downward. Further, there is nothing to indicate that children entering foster care due to behavioral issues would have been treated through the justice system before 2016.
These critiques of reforms clearly show that the state needs to invest more in services for at-risk children in the justice and foster care systems. Fulfilling the promise of justice reforms will help keep children at home with their families and out of foster care placements.
When the youth justice reforms are fully supported, they support at-risk children at home with their families.
The children of Kansas need safe homes. Research overwhelmingly shows that children do best and trauma is reduced when they stay with their families. Children in or outside of foster care in some states can be incarcerated for mental health or behavioral issues. That cannot be the solution in Kansas. Children in crisis need to be safely maintained in their homes or a home-like environment with community services to help them. The youth justice reforms promise to do just that– keep children with their families through probation and in-home services as opposed to locking them up.
Kansans working together can urge lawmakers to invest in services for all at-risk youth to keep children out of the justice and foster care systems.
There are several areas that Kansans can come together on to ensure that all Kansas children are getting their needs met so they can thrive in their homes:
Posted by: Amanda Schlumpberger, Ph.D., Policy & Legal Research Analyst
In pursuing a more effective youth justice system in Kansas, we must critically examine the State of Kansas’s current practices. We know that overwhelming research shows us that detention and correctional facilities used as a primary response for youth delinquency not only produce poor outcomes but also come at a high cost for our taxpayers. And Kansas has recognized that, working to dramatically reduce the number of kids in carceral settings since 2016. Despite not impacting what happens to children who commit the most serious, some stakeholders feel the reduction in the use of incarceration has left them with fewer options. On one hand, that’s a good thing because we know sending kids to jail doesn’t effectively change their behavior, nor does it positively impact their life trajectory. But on the other hand, this is a very bad thing. An effective youth justice system does not lack an array of options for dealing with dangerous or problematic behaviors from our young people.
The heart of resolving this discrepancy is investing in that array of options – when communities around the state feel they have options for handling negative youth behaviors, the last resort, catch-all of “lock them up,” remains a true last resort. But that will take a very serious and intentional effort from the legislature to make funds available and dedicate them to the kinds of programs lacking in Kansas communities. The $12-$14 million that is spent annually now is not enough, especially when you understand that statewide contracts eat up a bulk of that for only a few important services, as well as data infrastructure and other programs that only indirectly benefit the kids we are aiming to impact.
Kansas would be wise to use some of the budget surplus to invest in community-based programs that help change the behavior of children who are engaged in negative behaviors. Mental health and substance abuse programs are desperately needed across the state, but alone, they are not enough. Crisis intervention centers and mobile first responders are great ideas that need continued funding for full implementation, but more is needed.
We have to think proactively and long-term about positive behaviors and how we inject those into the lives of struggling youth. Programs that give children stability show them hope exists, demonstrating kindness, understanding, forgiveness, and love. These can be mentoring programs explicitly, assigning a stable adult to help kids navigate the obstacles in their lives, or they can be activity-based sports; martial arts, and boxing are all outlets that can build confidence, and peer relationships and create mentorship opportunities. Art, poetry, and music are other areas shown to do the same. Even community service -- conducted in a way that collaborates with young people to address issues in their communities- can create opportunities for young people to feel empowered, and hopeful, and be in contact with community leaders who also care about bettering their environment.
But this doesn’t mean we simply eliminate the youth justice system and tell local programs to deal with the kids in their communities. Supervised probation is part of this equation as well. And here, too, we can continue to improve the effectiveness of the service delivered to our Kansas taxpayers. Probation should not be the “bad guys,” always searching for a mistake from a kid and then punishing them – whether by throwing them in jail or extending their time on supervision. We must work strategically to create probation practices that focus on connecting youth with opportunities and positive influences that support their long-term success, rather than trying only to coerce short-term behavior change through monitoring compliance.
We’ve come a long way and are blessed in Kansas to have numerous stakeholders that truly get it – they understand that our youth justice system ought to be a system of positive interventions that help youth with unmet needs and personal or family struggles to achieve stability and find hope. Kansas kids should emerge from justice involvement better than before so they can live lives free of crime and delinquency and be successful and happy adults who can pursue and achieve their dreams.
Posted by: Mike Fonkert, Deputy Director