A 15-year-old’s suicide while in Kansas foster care came amid a shortfall in mental health care

Kansas foster care agencies are still failing to meet court-mandated goals for adequate mental health services.

by Blaise Mesa


  • It isn’t clear what the agency did or did not know about the child’s mental health needs before his death
  • Kansas foster care agencies still struggle to provide mental health services
  • There is improvement in the system, even though there are still gaps in mental health coverage

A 15-year-old took his own life in October while in the care of a private Kansas foster care agency.

That agency, KVC Kansas, fell short of court-mandated benchmarks for getting mental health treatment for children in its care.

Yet KVC actually comes closer to hitting the mark than other agencies hired by the state to look after children whose families have fallen into chaos. 

The Kansas Department for Children and Families confirmed that the boy died by suicide in a foster family’s home. The family immediately called for help when they discovered the teenager, but paramedics couldn’t save him, and his body was taken to the Johnson County coroner.

The nonprofit KVC Kansas runs case management in 11 counties divided into two foster care regions. A DCF report didn’t say which region the child was in when he died.

One region covers Douglas and Johnson counties, where 75% of foster children got the appropriate treatment for their mental health needs last year, a lawsuit settlement found. The other region is in northeast Kansas, where 71% of kids got mental health treatment.

Those are both below the 85% threshold the state agreed to in the settlement reached in a lawsuit filed by a handful of foster care advocates against the state on behalf of foster children in 2018 over inadequate care and the chronic shuffling of children from one foster care home to the next.

But KVC scores better in some areas than the four agencies being audited in connecting foster youth to adequate mental health resources. The agency employs 20 therapists who serve around one-third of its kids. KVC has around 1,500 kids in its programs, so kids who aren’t seen by those therapists get treatment elsewhere, like community mental health centers.

KVC is not required to hire those in-house therapists, but the company said it provides therapists to improve care for children who often face long waits to see mental health professionals.

In 2022, Camber Children’s Mental Health — a part of KVC Health Systems — provided mental health treatment to about 4,270 children in Kansas.

KVC couldn’t comment on the case because state law only allows the DCF secretary to talk about deaths. But the agency said mental health is a national struggle.

“On top of this, children who have had traumatic experiences — such as abuse, neglect, and other family crises that occur before foster care — are at elevated risk of mental health needs and higher rates of suicidality,” KVC said in an emailed statement.

Statewide, each foster agency struggles to provide children the help they need, the lawsuit settlement found. They don’t get screened quickly, and some children don’t get treatment even when their needs are identified.

Only 43% of mental health screenings were done in a timely manner with a qualified professional, and more than one in 10 kids have their services delayed because they are moving around to new homes too often.

In 2022, 70% of foster kids statewide got mental health treatment when they needed it, the lawsuit settlement said. That’s below the 85% requirement in the court settlement and below the ultimate goal of helping 90% of youth in need. Continuing to fail could land Kansas back to court.

The number of foster kids getting treatment has increased slightly, from 65% in 2021 to 70% in 2022, the lawsuit settlement found.

Amy Campbell, a lobbyist for the Kansas Mental Health Coalition, said those supports aren’t always available, but the state has made significant investments to expand access. The 988 suicide hotline and a new certification model for community mental health centers are major steps forward, she said. 

Meanwhile, the state remains short of mental health professionals.

“It is certainly an enormous challenge,” she said. 

So even as agencies try to hire more mental health specialists, they can’t find people to fill those jobs. 

That means specialized hospitals aren’t operating at capacity because they lack the staff. Campbell said that if every advertised job was filled, the state would still have gaps in coverage.

Still, she sees progress

“If everybody keeps working together,” she said, “I have very high hopes for the future.”

This article was republished here with the permission of: The Beacon