Kansas is in desperate need of families to provide homes for children in foster care.

The need is at an all time high, according to experts at St. Francis Ministries, a foster-care and adoption provider that has offices throughout Kansas and in five other states.

“I would like to see more communities step up to take care of youth in their community,” said Kevin Carrico, Salina, an attorney for St. Francis, who handles the agency’s legal work for foster care. “It’s hard to see them removed from their community and taken elsewhere.”

The state’s beleaguered foster care system has made disturbing headlines recently, leading to calls for reform and a class-action lawsuit, as well as to criticism for the number of children lost in the system. There are no children on runaway status from Ellis, Rooks, Rush and Trego counties, according to St. Francis.

But there is a big need for foster homes.

“The first step is educating the community that there is a huge need here,” Carrico said. “The need is at an all time high. It’s a record high.”

St. Francis, a nonprofit Episcopal-based organization, is one of two contractors in the state that handles delivery of services for foster care for the Department for Children and Families.

On Friday the Hays Area Chamber of Commerce is hosting its members and St. Francis for a Chamber Chat from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. at the agency’s Hays office, 3000 Broadway Ave. St. Francis staff will explore how businesses might be willing to engage in and champion foster care in the community.

“Our message to the public is we need more homes in order to place kids locally in their communities,” said Janis Friesen, Wichita, a spokesperson for St. Francis, in an email to The Hays Daily News.

Carrico applauded the Hays Area Chamber for sponsoring the discussion.

“A community wanting to speak about foster care, that’s a great start,” he said. “The first step is educating the community that there is a huge need here.”

There are more than 7,000 Kansas children in out-of-home placement, he said. St. Francis alone is providing services for 3,650 kids in foster care.

“When you think of those numbers and how many foster homes are needed, that’s a lot of foster homes,” he said. “We are definitely always recruiting parents.”

In Ellis County, and the adjacent counties of Rooks, Trego, Russell and Rush, 108 children have been removed from the home and are in foster care.

Ellis County has 71 children in foster care, 31 girls and 40 boys, ranging in age from under one year old to 17 years old. There are 20 foster homes.

Rooks County has 16 children in foster care, 10 girls and six boys, aged under one to 17. There are three foster homes.

Trego County has five children in foster care, two girls and three boys, ages eight to 11. There are four foster homes.

Russell County has 11 children, five girls and six boys, ages one to 18. There are nine foster homes.

Rush County has five children, two girls and three boys, ages one to 14. There are two foster homes.

St. Francis attempts to keep children in their home school and community as much as possible to minimize their trauma. But with a shortage of foster homes, that’s not always possible.

In counties where there aren’t sufficient homes, the kids stay in one of several places, Friesen said. They may be in a group home, an emergency shelter or placed outside the county. According to St. Francis, in Ellis County there are 29 children placed out of county; Rooks has three out of county; Rush has two out of county; Russell has six out of county; and Trego has one out of county.

“A lot of these kids have challenges,” Carrico said. “They may be behavioral or mental health issues. They may have been born with a drug-addicted parent, or they may have fetal alcohol syndrome. They aren’t easy to provide care for.”

Kansas in 2000 privatized delivery of services for children in need of care. For Ellis County and 52 other counties in western and south central Kansas, the contractor is St. Francis Ministries.

Children go into foster care for a variety of reasons, including when they are removed from the home. Sometimes they come to the attention of law enforcement when someone calls in a child with no parents, or a child goes into police protective custody because the parents have been arrested or in a serious auto accident. In those cases, police are in need of people willing to take a child in for 72 hours.

“A large percentage of the parents who are working reintegration plans have drug and alcohol problems,” Carrico said.

As part of foster care, a judge approves the steps in a reintegration case plan for the biological parents to get their children back. Parents have to show progress, such as being clean from illegal drugs, submitting to urine testing, and undergoing therapy for anger.

If parents are working the plan successfully, then visits with their children occur, perhaps supervised initially and then moving to unsupervised and overnight visits eventually in a logical progression of reintegration, Carrico said.

If the parents aren’t successful, then the judge will either terminate parental rights or the parents relinquish their rights and the child comes up for adoption.

In Hays, Judge Brendon Boone hears the child-in-need of care cases. “He’s been a foster parent,” Carrico said. “He has very good knowledge.”

Once parental rights are terminated or relinquished, St. Francis starts looking for adoptive homes.

“A lot of foster parents, they want to adopt the infant, the baby,” Carrico said. “As children get older, 10, 11, 12 and up, there’s much less interest. People think the children are set in their ways, or harder. It’s hard to find people who want to adopt teenagers.”

Previously the state required an eight- or 10-week approach to parenting classes for would-be foster parents. The state has shortened that.

“So now it’s not as difficult to be a foster parent,” Carrico said. “So we can make it a little easier for people to become foster parents, as long as we don’t compromise children’s safety.”