Topeka, Kan. — More than half the counties in the state rely on 10 or fewer families to take in foster children.
Roughly one-tenth of the counties in Kansas rely on one licensed foster home each.
And those relatively few families looking after foster kids in its most remote corners struggle to get from court appointments to doctors’ visits to soccer practice where drives between appointments get measured not in minutes, but hours.
Consider what Rebecca Applebee’s move from Liberal, Kansas, means to her community. Already, about half of the foster children in Seward County are living elsewhere. When Applebee leaves, there will be one fewer foster homes in the county. And it can take more than a year for state agencies to find and license a foster home.
Recruiting foster families is hard in general, as is being a foster parent. The more rural you get, the harder the job can be — both to find foster families and to open your home to foster children.
“It’s exhausting,” Applebee said. “And being in a rural location, sometimes we don’t get the answers that we want. It’s not just for lack of trying. It’s because of a lack of resources, (a) lack of something local.”
Applebee is used to life in rural Kansas, but the requirements for foster parents add additional stressors to her life.
Foster children need to establish care with doctors within 30 days of placement. The children have Medicaid and Applebee needed to find an eye doctor who took that insurance, but she didn’t have time to call around to offices to see who accepted it. The only place that accepted the children’s insurance wouldn’t let her establish care until an outstanding bill was paid. The bill was from the biological family and it took additional time to settle that dispute.
“I could have just paid it myself,” Applebee said. “(But) I already do so much more than what I’m obligated to do, and I just couldn’t let one more thing pile on.”
Fun activities for her children can also prove hard to come by. Rural counties have their amenities, but Applebee said escape rooms, a wider selection in restaurants and foster-care-specific events are more common in larger cities.
Foster children were once invited to a trampoline park to play for free, but that event was in Wichita over three hours away. Applebee is moving to Shawnee County, which has 145 licensed homes. She looks forward to being closer to everyday needs.
“I want to so badly live in town because we have been driving an hour (for school and other necessities),” she said, adding that long hours mean less downtime, and shorter commutes will allow her family “to feel like we can relax because right now we don’t get to relax.”
Access to primary care and mental health services is an issue for rural Kansas families, as is access to transportation, part-time jobs for foster youth and child care, said Bradford Wiles, an associate professor and extension specialist in early childhood development at Kansas State University. Child care has become so hard to find in Kansas that some families are planning pregnancies around openings.
Wiles said rural communities sometimes lack basic services, like reliable internet. That creates more barriers to low-income Kansans and can make them even less likely to consider foster care.
Fostering in rural Kansas “it isn’t as appealing as it could be,” Wiles said.
“If there were more formal supports,” he said, “it would be much more appealing for those who would consider fostering to go ahead and take action.”
Julie Dinkel knows the struggles of rural foster parents all too well. Dinkel works at the foster care agency St. Francis as the foster homes recruiter for southwest Kansas. She has been supporting rural families for 15 years.
Her agency is making it easier for foster parents to connect with services, but not every change helps everyone. Licensed homes must go in for foster training. Some homes are hours away from the in-person classes. With the pandemic limiting in-person contact, the agency developed online courses. But families without reliable internet couldn’t attend virtually, so Dinkel went out and did the training with them.
To address parents’ needs, St. Francis works with churches and other community groups to provide respite care on the weekends, home-cooked meals, closets with extra clothes or activity days where children are invited to play.
“You have to be very creative and you have to know what resources to reach out to,” Dinkel said. “Luckily. in Southwest Kansas community partners … will bend over backwards to help each agency.”
She said foster parent recruitment is a non-stop process and agencies need to check in with parents even after that person becomes licensed.
Wiles said more people would move to rural Kansas if those areas are invested in properly. He said there is the misconception that western Kansas is mostly cows and farmers, but the area has nice people and beautiful views that appeal to anyone.
“The thing I love the most about (rural Kansas) is they do a very good job with limited resources and (they) build their sense of community,” he said.
Blaise Mesa reports on criminal justice and social services for the Kansas News Service in Topeka. You can follow him on Twitter @Blaise_Mesa or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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