A state senator says he’s working on a bill that would give some foster parents more say in the legal process for determining whether children in their care should be returned to their biological parents or put up for adoption.
“It seems to me that foster parents are the ones who spend the most time with these kids, but they have no authority, no power,” said Sen. Forrest Knox, an Altoona Republican. “They’re just babysitters.”
Knox said he plans to propose creating a “new tier” of foster parents who would be allowed to participate in the decision-making process in exchange for being better trained and taking on more difficult children.
“We’d expect a lot more out of them, but we’d pay them a lot more, too,” he said.
Knox and his wife, Renee, have nine biological children, two of whom still live at home. The couple adopted four brothers — then ages 5, 7, 8 and 13 — two years ago after caring for them two years as foster parents.
Too little say
Knox said he thought more “good people” would agree to become foster parents if they knew they “would be given the tools to make a difference in kids’ lives.”
Many compassionate adults, he said, don't become foster parents because they know they would have little or no say in what happens to the children placed in their care.
“The kids get jerked out of their homes and they’re not told why,” Knox said. “They have no standing. They’re just a place to put kids.”
Knox said his proposal would not increase overall costs.
“I’m looking at spending less money total,” he said, “but spending it more effectively.”
In Kansas, foster-care decisions are the subject of court proceedings during which a judge rules on evidence presented by attorneys representing the state, the children, and the biological parents.
Foster parents are allowed to file written reports with the court, letting the judge know how the children in their care are faring. But they are not considered an ‘interested party’ with legal standing in the case.
Decisions affecting the services children receive while in foster care are made by the Kansas Department for Children and Families, which contracts for services with two nonprofits: KVC Behavioral Health and St. Francis Community Services.
St. Francis and KVC, in turn, each have networks of licensed foster homes. They also rely on networks developed by other charitable organizations.
'A lot of inefficiencies'
Kansas privatized most if it’s foster care responsibilities in 1996.
“I haven’t seen (privatization) really work,” Knox said. “I see a lot of inefficiencies.”
According to the latest reports on the DCF website, 5,780 children were in the state’s foster care system last month. Currently, the system includes 2,546 licensed foster parents.
Knox said he hoped his proposal would be the subject of a pilot project somewhere in the state next year.
Bruce Linhos, executive director with the Children’s Alliance of Kansas, an advocacy group that helps train foster parents, said similar proposals similar have been tried in the past with varying degrees of success.
All of the foster care contractors and subcontractors, he said, have foster parents who have more training than most and who are willing to take on children with especially difficult behaviors.
“That kind of family has always been around and they’re of huge value,” he said.
Still, Linhos said, Knox’s proposal appears to be “entirely plausible” in light of an ongoing effort to lessen the state’s reliance on residential facilities for mentally ill children. He said it might also complement a recent Office of Judicial Administration initiative aimed at helping parents and children better navigate the foster care system.
Marcia Allen, who runs Kansas Family Advisory Network, a Wichita-based group that advocates for parents whose children are in state custody, said Knox’s proposal would raise several issues that have proven to be contentious in the past.
“I fully support more training for foster parents and I understand that they want more say in the process," she said. "But is that to say they should have more say than the birth parents? Should they have more say than the children? And what about grandparents? Shouldn't they have a say? Everybody wants more say in the process. And you know what? They all probably deserve more say.”
Susan Wagle, already distinct in history as the first woman elected president of the Kansas Senate, said there are other things for which she would prefer to be remembered:
“A fiscal conservative, a social conservative, a mom, a businesswoman and a schoolteacher . . . that’s pretty diverse,” she said.
This is her 23rd year in the Legislature — 10 in the House, 13 in the Senate.
Her tenure has been punctuated by causes she took on when broader interest among legislators was not always apparent and which brought her statewide, sometimes national, attention.
“I’m a second-born of six children — two boys and four girls - and you know how second-borns are,” she said. “I was a challenge for my parents and I can be a challenge up here (at the Statehouse) if it’s an issue I care about.”
The 59-year-old Wichita resident was at the forefront of a conservative Republican takeover of the Senate in the November 2012 general elections.
She was elected the chamber’s leader in December and in January presided over a major rules change that barred any floor amendments that would add costs to spending bills. That so-called ‘pay-go’ provision, championed by conservative Republicans, was adopted 28-11, mimicking one already in force in the House.
‘Dancing not dating’
Despite that and other changes, she is regarded by some as “old school.”
“In many respects, I believe Susan is kind of old school in terms of her appreciation of the political process and the exchange of ideas,” said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat.
ln 2002, he said, she worked with Democrats on a Senate redistricting map that was adopted despite opposition from Republican moderates, then the majority in the GOP caucus.
He also credited her with putting together a coalition of GOP conservatives and Democrats to break a 2007 budget deadlock.
“Just because she’s of a different political stripe doesn’t mean we can’t work with her,” Hensley said. “We’ve always had an understanding that we’re only dancing, we’re not dating.”
Health policy background
Wagle has had more experience with health policy issues than has been the norm for those who have risen to the Senate presidency.
From 2001 to 2007, she was chair of the chamber’s Health Care Strategies Committee. It was a period in which the Legislature was unusually active in its consideration of potentially far reaching state Medicaid and other health reforms.
She also had an unsuccessful run at statewide office before becoming president, which is a bit uncommon in that top legislative leaders often aren’t that well known to general voters outside their own districts.
In 2006, she ran for lieutenant governor on the ticket with GOP gubernatorial nominee Jim Barnett of Emporia, a physician and fellow senator who since has retired from politics. The pair was handily defeated in the general election by Democrat Kathleen Sebelius and her running mate Mark Parkinson.
In 2000, Wagle launched an investigation of how then- Kansas Attorney General Carla Stovall, a fellow Republican, had hired her former law firm to represent the state in the lawsuit that led to the master settlement agreement with the nation’s tobacco companies. Stovall’s former firm collected $27 million for its role. The state's ongoing share in the settlement has been earmarked mostly for children’s programs.
Three years later during debate on the Senate floor, Wagle accused a professor at the Kansas University School of Social Welfare of showing pornographic videos, condoning pedophilia, and using foul language in a popular class he taught on human sexuality. Her move to cut funding for the school was vetoed by Sebelius.
A subsequent university investigation and report on the allegations exonerated the professor.
In 2011, as chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, Wagle held several contentious hearings on allegations that the chief executive at the Kansas Bioscience Authority had mishandled or misrepresented the agency’s activities. The executive resigned and took a job out of state.
“You want her on your side,” said Tim Shallenburger, a former Kansas House speaker who now serves as Gov. Sam Brownback’s chief legislative liaison. “Not so much because she’s president of the Senate but because of the passion she brings to an issue. She’s very hard working.”
Wagle says her political energies are now focused on improving the economy.
“Clearly, the state of Kansas is in the midst of an economic downturn, followed by long-term stagnation that, I believe, has been caused by a lack of leadership at the federal level,” she said. “We’re at a turning point. If we don’t get control of federal spending, this country and this state will take a turn for the worse and the opportunities I had growing up will not be the same as those that my children will have.”
The best way to stimulate the state’s economy, she said, was “…through lower taxes, smaller government, and less regulation.”
She said she shares that view with Gov. Sam Brownback, a confidante for many years, and House Speaker Ray Merrick.
“We are unified on that goal, although we may have to take different paths to get there,” Wagle said.
Wagle, a former elementary school teacher, said her readiness to cut taxes dated to 1986 when a statewide reappraisal tripled the property taxes on some commercial property that she and her husband owned.
“Our taxes went from $5,000 a year to $15,000 a year,” she said. “I was shocked.”
Four years later, she ran for the House and won.
Wagle, who grew up in east Wichita, also is well known for her opposition to abortion.
“I didn’t start out pro-life,” she said. “I graduated from (Wichita) Southeast (High School) in 1972, which was about the time that Dr. (George) Tiller started his practice. I had friends — young girls — who saw the clinic as a form of birth control and who later suffered emotional consequences. But we were young and I didn’t think that much about it.”
A Wichita lawmaker has introduced a bill that would require cities that fluoridate the water to notify users "that the latest science confirms that ingested fluoride lowers the I.Q. in children."
House Bill 2372 was offered by Rep. Steve Brunk, a Republican, who said he introduced the bill on behalf of Mark Gietzen, a conservative GOP activist and anti-abortion lobbyist also of Wichita.
But Brunk said he did not expect the bill to advance and that he had no interest in it himself.
"That was a constituent request," Brunk said. "As a courtesy, I gave him a bill introduction and told him that was as far as it goes. I'm not his champion of the cause," he said.
"I'm not aware of any interest in this bill at all (among fellow legislators). I'd be surprised if the (committee) chairman gives him a hearing."
Fluoridation has long been accepted by public health experts in the U.S. and elsewhere as an effective means to combat tooth decay, especially in children. Its use has been widespread among public water suppliers in the U.S. since the 1960s. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about 74 percent of the nation relies on fluoridated water supplies. The CDC has linked public fluoridation with an increase in the incidence of dental fluorisis, a condition that can cause tooth enamel to appear streaked but is not generally considered harmful to health.
Most research on the subject has shown municipal water fluoridation to be a safe and and effective practice. There are a few scientists who say their studies suggest otherwise, and that their findings have been marginalized by the broader scientific community.
Gietzen told KHI News Service he hoped to take advantage of the recent publicity surrounding Wichita's citywide vote on whether to fluoridate its public drinking water. Voters there rejected fluoridation, just as they did previously in 1978 and 1964. Wichita is among the few larger American cities that do not fluoridate public water supplies. The cities of Topeka, Lawrence, Manhattan and dozens of others in Kansas do add the CDC-recommended amount of fluoride to driking water. Many rural water districts also provide fluoridated water to their customers.
"The momentum of the Wichita fluoride debate (is) something we want to capitalize on," Gietzen said. "With everything — asbestos, lead, thalidomide, the drug we once thought was so good — when more modern science shows you that what you thought in the past was good and now you know it's not good, you need to put the brakes on it and stop harming people."
Gietzen cited a a 2012 study co-authored by a researcher at the Harvard School of Public Health that showed children in areas with high naturally occurring fluoride have significantly lower I.Q. scores than children in low-fluoride areas. He said it was that study that convinced him to vote against fluoridating Wichita's water.
"Eight months ago I didn't know how I was going to vote on the Wichita fluoride debate. I couldn't even spell fluoride, truth be known," Gietzen said. "If something opened your eyes and you realized you have knowledge of something other people are being harmed by and they didn't even know it, wouldn't you feel the obligation to at least let them know?"
The study by the Harvard researcher, however, mostly considered the effects of high levels of fluoride on brain development among children in China because that's where there are significant numbers of people exposed to high levels of fluoride, often from well water and not as the result of municipal fluoridation. The study's authors noted that it was difficult to find study subjects in other industrialized countries because children there aren't exposed to high fluoride levels in the water "even when fluoride is added to water supplies as a public health measure to reduce tooth decay."
By the time it reaches the tap, most drinking water in Kansas has been treated with all kinds of chemicals.
Chlorine, ammonia, alum, phosphates and polymers are among the most commonly used.
But of the hundreds of chemicals certified for use at water treatment plants, only one seems to excite public attention and controversy: fluoride.
And the clamor this year over the additive probably is as loud in Wichita as it is anywhere else in the U.S.
Kansas’ largest city for many years has been among the minority of American cities that do not fluoridate the drinking water. As is, Wichita’s water, drawn from Cheney Lake and aquifers, has a naturally occurring or “background” fluoride level of about 0.3 parts per million. One ppm is equivalent to 1 milligram per liter of water.
A group of residents — Wichitans for Healthy Teeth — has been circulating a petition asking city officials to boost the level of fluoride in the city’s water to 0.7 ppm as a way to combat tooth decay, especially among low-income persons who might not have regular access to dentists. About 8,300 signatures have been collected so far.
"Fluoridated water can reduce decay by about 25 percent," said Dr. Sara Meng, chair of Wichitans for Health Teeth. "A very conservative estimate of how much can be saved is $4.5 million annually, in preventing fillings and basic services. That does not count all the crowns, root canals and other major services."
If the group were successful, the city’s residents would experience no tactile differences in their water. It takes about 600 milligrams to equal a quarter teaspoon of salt, so 0.7 ppm of fluoride in the water would be nothing a normal person could taste or feel.
But that’s not what bothers the opponents of fluoridation in Wichita who have organized under the banners of Wichitans for Pure Water, a new group, and Fluoride Free Kansas, which launched its website in the late 1990s to fight an earlier effort to fluoridate the water.
Spokespersons for the opponents say the potential health hazards of fluoride, added at treatment plants in industrial quantities, aren’t fully understood. Some argue that government has no right to put what they consider medication in the drinking water.
"Fluoride is not the end-all, be-all to preventing cavities that we once thought it was, and there are potential side effects. We need to be investigating these," said Michael Hicks, volunteer executive director of Wichitans for Pure Water.
Health experts, however, say long-experience and research have shown the benefits of fluoridation far outweigh potential risks, which are inconsequential if the fluoride is used appropriately.
"The fact is, scientists involved in this have a very detailed and deliberate knowledge of (fluoridation),” said Kip Duchon, a fluoridation engineer at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “We struggle because it's difficult for us to explain very complex things in lay terms."
That makes it relatively easy, he said, for people to stir up doubts and stoke fears about fluoridation based on misinformation.
Peer-reviewed research on the subject has convinced public health experts that fluoridation is safe and effective. But there are a few scientists who say their research suggests otherwise, and that their findings have been marginalized.
One of those is Albert Burgstahler, University of Kansas emeritus professor of chemistry and editor of the journal "Fluoride."
The journal focuses on the potential problems of fluoride, providing a venue for the “marginalized” researchers. For example, a report by a New Zealand scientist published in the journal in July 2011 concluded that the additive could cause cognitive impairment and that "the only assuredly safe level is zero" fluoride in drinking water.
Burgstahler declined requests to be interviewed, citing unfair treatment by the media in the past, but offered some information to KHI News Service via email.
"The public needs to have access to the best available evidence to make wise decisions. Asking the public to have faith in endorsements and opinions is not the same as seeing actual evidence," Burgstahler wrote via email, attaching several articles included here.
He said his journal has been published since 1968, “but has been deliberately excluded from coverage by Medline," for reasons he said were outlined here.
Medline is the index of medical journals maintained by the National Institutes of Health.
'Poison is the concentration, not the substance'
Among the concerns fluoride opponents commonly cite is the way most large water treatment plants add it in the treatment process, by pumping in hydrofluosilicic acid.
The acid is a byproduct of phosphate production. The opponents generally describe it as a "toxic waste," added to drinking water despite the fact that no studies have been done on its possible health effects.
→ Related story: Kansas’ largest city and fluoride debate have long history
→ Find out whether your water is fluoridated on the CDC's website.