School of Social Welfare lands $13 million grant to help improve lives of foster children

The School of Social Welfare has earned a five-year, $13.3 million grant from Department of Health and Human Services Administration on Children, Youth and Families to make family life better for children in foster care who have serious emotional disabilities.

The grant is the largest in the history of the School of Social Welfare and should result in improved outcomes for kids in Kansas as well as new employment in the state.

Tom McDonald

“This population is in need,” said Tom McDonald, professor of social welfare. “Half the kids who enter foster care have serious emotional disabilities. We’re talking about kids with mental health problems that substantially disrupt social, academic and emotional functioning. They stay longer in foster care and often have many placements because of some of their behaviors.”

McDonald and KU social welfare researchers Stephanie Bryson and Becci Akin are co-principal investigators for the new grant.

The funds will create a new initiative — the Kansas Intensive Permanency Project — to serve 2,160 Kansas families of children with the most severe mental health and behavioral problems.

Specifically, the grant will provide in-home therapy and resources to these families while their children are in foster care, with the aim of supporting permanent reunification of those families.

“Sometimes, kids’ behavior is so extreme that they present a danger to themselves or others, and it’s no longer possible to maintain the child in the home,” said McDonald. “For example, kids could be running away, setting fires or being aggressive to other kids in the home.”

McDonald added, “Yet, there’s good evidence that those children can be best cared for in those families of origin if the families themselves get the support they need.”

The foster care system in Kansas has been privatized since 1997. The grant funds will enable the four private nonprofit providers of family reintegration/foster care services in Kansas —Youthville, TFI Family Services Inc., KVC Behavioral HealthCare Kansas Inc. and St. Francis Community Services — to give new resources to families and to hire new staff to work with those families.

“The grant will allow the foster care providers — who are the experts in these cases — to provide families whatever therapeutic or concrete support they may need,” McDonald said. “Funds will help agencies hire dedicated therapists who can work with families intensively. Funds could also help with things like housing, medical care or daycare for the child that would allow parents to be employed.”

At the same time, the children in foster care will continue to receive treatment and intervention, with the aim of making family reunification possible.

The grant is part of a federal effort to test child-welfare plans and promote effective initiatives nationwide. Nationally, Health and Human Services awarded six grants. The grant to the KU is the only such grant awarded to a university.

Working in conjunction with the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services, the school will coordinate the efforts of Kansas’ four nonprofit providers of foster care services.

“We’ll take a lead role in terms of working with outside consultants, conducting a thorough needs assessment before implementation, and ensuring fidelity to the program intervention,” said McDonald. “We’ll also come up with screening tools to identify families in need earlier in the life of a case. The hope is that we can change the trajectories of kids entering foster care in the future.”


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