The Department for Children and Families (formerly SRS) serves about 5,200 children a day through foster care. Based on complaints made by foster care families, legislators wanted an independent review of several cases to determine if state officials acted appropriately. For the cases we reviewed, department, law enforcement and court officials had sufficient and convincing reasons for removing children from their parents and not reuniting them. Although our conclusions are based solely on our review of nine cases and cannot be projected to the foster care system as a whole, they are consistent with the findings of a recent internal audit conducted by the department. Although families alleged their cases were mishandled, the allegations we could evaluate were contradicted by the evidence we reviewed, and did not adversely affect case outcomes. In addition, family members consistently expressed concerns about the foster care program for several reasons. Sometimes, parents may not have fully understood all the aspects of their child’s case and therefore felt like they had been treated unfairly. Also, parents and relatives often disagreed with key decisions affecting where their child was placed. Lastly, parents’ actions or personal circumstances can further delay or prevent reunification with their children.
Board of Indigents’ Defense Services: A K-GOAL Audit Reviewing Payments Made for Indigent Defense Services
Kansas’ system for providing legal services to indigent persons is generally sufficient, but it has a few problems. We found the Board’s financial affidavit doesn’t comply with some of its administrative regulations, and judges may have to make decisions about appointing legal representation based on incomplete and unverified information. In 13 of the 104 cases we reviewed, where the judge appointed an attorney, additional information showed the defendant didn’t appear to be indigent. Judges have a great deal of discretion in determining who is indigent. Additionally, each year, the Board spends far more to provide legal representation to indigent defendants than it receives back. Some reasons for this include Kansas’ law which limits a district courts ability to recoup the cost of legal representation, and the fact that judges can reduce or waive the repayment of representation. Lastly, the courts have not collected the full amount from defendants ordered to repay their legal costs. We also found several additional issues regarding the district courts’ use of the financial affidavit, and some district courts’ practices for approving payments to private attorneys.
Foster Care: Reviewing Selected Issues Related to Compensation and Oversight of Foster Care Contractors
In December 2007, the Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services (SRS) changed the way it structured foster care contracts to provide more financial stability to contractors. In general, each month, foster care contractors’ costs are less than the monthly payments they receive. However, the payment structure doesn’t appear to have affected children’s length of stay in foster care. We identified many other factors that do seem to affect the length of stay including, judicial discretion and the mental health and behavior problems of the child or the child’s family. We also found that increasing the adoption subsidy rate potentially could increase the number of children adopted. Overall, SRS has established a good structure that can help it oversee foster care contractors. However, staff don’t always act to correct the problems found while monitoring because the agency has a hands-off approach to overseeing contractors. We also noted that, regardless of SRS’ oversight efforts, hundreds of children remain in foster care for a long time. Nevertheless, in taking a hands-off approach following up on problems, SRS increases the risk that children could unnecessarily languish in foster care. Finally, we noted that Kansas’ performance on national standards related to length of stay in foster care appears to be about average.
Judicial Districts in Kansas: Determining Whether Boundaries Could Be Redrawn to Increase Efficiency and Reduce Costs
In fiscal year 2008, the district courts spent an estimated $114 million on operating costs, and had more than 1,800 full-time-equivalent staff. Almost $101 million was paid by the State and almost $102 million went for district court personnel salaries and benefits. Since court unification in 1977, the distribution of cases per judge has remained very uneven across judicial districts. On average, caseloads are higher in districts that have a lot of cases. The disparity in cases per judge is caused primarily by the law requiring one judge per county, regardless of the number of cases in that county. We used statistical analyses to help predict the Statewide cost of operating a newly structured district court system that better aligned resources with caseloads, and that wasn’t limited by current statutory requirements. The savings that could be achieved vary based on the assumptions and estimates used. Under one scenario, had the district courts operated in fiscal year 2008 with 13 judicial districts instead of 31, we estimated that court personnel and travel costs combined could have been $6.2 million (5.4%) less for State and local governments combined. Under another scenario, had the courts operated with only seven districts in 2008, those costs could have been approximately $8.1 million (7.1%) less. Additional cost savings likely are possible with increased use of technology. Even without redrawing existing judicial district boundaries, the State could achieve cost savings by eliminating the one-judge-per-county law.
Foster Care: Reviewing Decisions To Remove Children From Their Homes
Legislators have heard numerous complaints from families who thought there wasn’t sufficient reason to remove their children and place them in foster care, or to keep them away once removed. In our review of a small sample of those cases, we concluded that removal and reunification decisions generally were handled reasonably. We did find some problems with other aspects of the cases. Some examples include SRS’s contractors not following court orders to obtain drug tests for family members, and not always documenting the results of those tests. Also, in two cases SRS didn’t interview individuals who may have been able to provide relevant information about a case. Within the court system, we found several problems or potential problems with the handling of cases in Montgomery County, including the appearance of potential bias in one case, faulty recording devices in a courtroom, and adoption being used as a case goal far more frequently than for all foster care cases Statewide. Finally, we found several instances where there appeared to be deficiencies in the level or quality of legal representation provided to parents. Given everything else that was going on in these cases, for the most part we think it is unlikely that any of these individual problems would have affected the removal and reunification decisions made about these children.
Costs Incurred for Death Penalty Cases: A K-GOAL Audit of the Department of Corrections
Actual cost figures for death penalty and non-death penalty cases in Kansas don't exist. Considering all costs through execution or the end of imprisonment, we estimate the median death penalty case that has gone to trial so far in Kansas would cost an estimated $1.2 million, or about 60% more than the estimated cost of the median case in a small sample of non-death penalty cases used for comparison. The trial stage accounts for nearly $475,000 of the higher projected costs, and the appeal-related stages accounts for another $382,000. Death penalty trial costs tend to be higher because the trials are lengthier, a separate trial is held for sentencing, more jurors are called, and there's generally a greater use of expensive expert witnesses. Appeal costs are higher because, with the defendant's life at stake, there tend to be more appeals and more issues raised each time an appeal is made. Because much of the process involved in trying a death penalty case is prescribed by law or the U.S. Supreme Court, we found little variation between Kansas and a sample of other states, and no real opportunity for eliminating steps in the process. Opportunities to save costs need to be focused on other areas, such as providing for a true life sentence without the possibility of parole to possibly reduce the number of appeals, possibly creating a specialized group of judges or law clerks who may be able to more efficiently handle death penalty cases because of research and expertise, and ensuring that the State Board of Indigents' Defense Services can handle as many death penalty cases as possible rather than hiring contract attorneys at much higher cost.
Diversion Agreements: Reviewing Their Impact on State Revenues (100-hour audit)
When traffic fines were raised by the 2001 Legislature, revenues were expected to increase by about $15.5 million in fiscal year 2002. Instead, revenues only increased by a little over $5 million. Although there's been a significant increase in the number of diversions Statewide in recent years, the increase that occurred in fiscal year 2002 (the first year after traffic fines were increased) likely only accounted for about $73,000 of the $10 million revenue shortfall. Problems with projections used in the fiscal note may have made those projections too high by millions of dollars. Other factors such as an increase in dismissed traffic cases and prosecutors allowing defendants to plead to lesser charges also appear to have had more of an impact than diversions.
Child Support Workload of the Offices of the Clerk of the District Court: Assessing the Effect of Moving Certain Duties to the Kansas Payment Center (100-hour audit)
Although they no longer process child support payments, the clerks' offices remain responsible for a number of child support activities, such as scheduling hearings, updating court records, and issuing subpoenas and garnishments. In addition, they picked up new duties because of the Payment Center. The 3 largest courts in the State estimated they freed up about 10 employees when the Kansas Payment Center started processing child support payments. They've eliminated about half those positions, and assigned the rest to other duties in the court, such as reducing backlogs and working on new court initiatives. The 4 trustees' offices that previously handled child support payments in Kansas have not eliminated any positions.
Reviewing the Kansas Court System’s Allocation of Staff Resources To the District Courts
Statutes that specify the location of each judge prevent the Supreme Court from permanently reallocating existing judgeships to equalize workloads, although the Court does make temporary reassignments of judges. Because of statutory limitations, the wide variance in judicial caseloads across the State has changed little since court unification in 1977. In 1996, judges in some districts had caseloads of less than 400, while judges in other districts had caseloads ranging from 1,300 to 2,300. Court officials typically try to assign new staff to the district courts with the greatest need. However, since 1987, the number of judgeships has increased by only 4%, from 216 to 225, while the number of cases filed has increased by 40%. In this same period, non judicial staff increased by 7%. In spite of significant improvements in their ability to process cases, the district courts seem to be falling behind in their work, and increased caseloads have caused services to be cut back in some offices of the clerk of the district court. The audit identifies numerous changes that could help the courts operate more efficiently, but many of these would take additional financial resources or statutory changes.
Examining Child Support Enforcement Activities in Kansas
In fiscal year 1994, Kansas collected about 55% of the current child support owed, about the same as the national average. However, within SRS area offices, this rate varies from 41% to 67%. Shortcomings were identified in about 1 in 5 cases we reviewed, including six that simply “fell through the cracks.” The report identified factors that hamper collection efforts in Kansas, such as high caseloads, lack of equipment, the lack of access to information to locate absent parents, difficulty in getting management information from the Department’s computer system, and conflicts between the courts and the Department.Kansas spends more than the national average and nearby states for each dollar of child support collected. No comparisons on the cost-efficiency of the various area offices could be made because no data were available. The Department spent about the same per dollar of child support collected as the court trustees on enforcement services, but what it costs the Department to have court trustees handle enforcement services varies significantly. Except for some duplication between the Department and the district court clerks, no inherent inefficiencies in the Program’s structure were apparent. Other states contract with private agencies for a more extensive range of child support services than Kansas. It appears Kansas may be able to reduce its expenditures for enforcement services in certain areas of the State where those services aren’t being provided as efficiently as they could be.
Reviewing the Implementation of the Kansas Sentencing Guidelines Act
Through September 1994, 1,629 inmates had been released early through the retroactivity provisions of the Kansas Sentencing Guidelines Act. The Department made some errors in converting inmates’ sentences, a few of which affected inmates’ release dates. Inmates released under retroactivity did not commit any more crimes after they were released than a similar group of inmates released on parole. Sentencing guidelines have decreased sentence length for some more serious crimes, and increased sentence length for some less serious crimes. In three areas--repeat property offenses, certain sex crimes, and certain drug crimes--many people question whether the sentences are proportional to the crime. Guidelines sentences are more uniform, but departures can reduce the degree of uniformity. A number of problems exist with the implementation of sentencing guidelines, including problems relating to technical parole violators, increases in the number of trials, incomplete criminal history records, and incomplete and inaccurate information provided to the Sentencing Commission.
Reviewing the Operations of the Board of Indigents’ Defense Services
The State could save more than $540,000 a year by adding attorneys to existing public defender offices, opening a public defender office in Wyandotte County, and contracting with private attorneys. The Board and its staff need to be more proactive in such areas as establishing systems to produce reliable information, helping public defender offices with budgeting, setting standards for staffing levels, and ensuring that public defender offices have the resources they need. In about half of 192 cases we reviewed, the judge had insufficient information to declare a defendant indigent, and about 10% of the cases should have been investigated further. Other states we surveyed used public defenders, private attorneys, and contract counsel to provide indigents’ defense services, although most of the other states also provide services to juveniles and to adults charged with misdemeanors. Kansas’ private attorney rates were among the highest of the sample states. Several things have contributed to a backlog of unpaid assigned counsel claims at the end of each year: inaccurate estimates by the Board, tight fiscal conditions in the State, and the Legislature appropriating less than the Board estimated it would need. Finally, the financial impact of the death penalty and other legislation is likely to be between $1.4 million and $3.2 million, about half the Board’s estimate. The Legislature appropriated about $1.2 million to pay for the legislation, but the Governor vetoed $900,000 that was associated with the death penalty.
Reviewing District Courts’ Handling of Appearance Bonds for Persons Charged with Crimes
During the five-year period from 1989 through 1993, the 3rd, 11th, and 20th judicial districts had nearly $170,000 available from their court bond programs for discretionary spending. These courts spent about $98,000 of that amount. The Shawnee County judicial district contributed its discretionary moneys--about $54,000--to the County Treasurer, while the other judicial districts spent their moneys mainly for equipment and supplies related to court operations. Generally, the district courts have properly accounted for court bond moneys, but we noted several areas where improvements are needed. These improvements would help ensure that discretionary moneys are spent appropriately, State laws regarding unclaimed property and forfeited bond moneys are complied with, and court accounting records and reports are complete and accurate. The standard actions for the court to take when a defendant does not appear in court as required is to forfeit the appearance bond and issue a warrant for the defendant’s arrest. The courts took this action in all of the sample cases we reviewed. However, we noted that in some cases the Shawnee County district court may not be delivering arrest warrants to the Sheriff’s Office in a timely manner. In addition, although the Shawnee County district court has ordered that court bonds be paid in full when a defendant missed a required court appearance, in actual practice they are rarely paid in full.
Review of Moneys Collected Through the Office of the Clerk of the Appellate Courts
For fiscal years 1989, 1990, and 1991, the moneys collected by the Office of the Clerk of the Appellate Courts were properly handled and recorded. In addition, we found that the potential for loss or misuse of receipts could be reduced by assigning the responsibility for handling receipts and the responsibility for recordkeeping for receipts to different employees, or by having periodic, independent comparisons of actual cash amounts to Office fee records.
Determining the Costs to the Attorney General’s Office to Defend Two Recent Lawsuits (100-hour audit)
We found that the Attorney General's Office incurred total costs of about $25,000 to defend the first lawsuit and about $39,300 on the second lawsuit, for a total of $64,300. These costs include staff attorneys' salaries and fringe benefits, overhead costs, payments to outside counsel, and other direct costs to the Attorney General's Office. We also found that staff attorneys in the Attorney General's Office spent about 261 hours on the first case and 938 hours on the second case.
Child Custody Determinations in Kansas Divorce Cases
Mothers were awarded sole child custody or primary residency in 81.7 percent of the cases sampled, while fathers got sole custody or primary residency in 10.7 percent of the cases. The remainder included cases of joint custody with residency equally shared between the divorcing parents, and cases in which custody was granted to other persons or agencies.
Most counties and larger cities reported entering into nearly 11,000 diversion agreements with adult and juvenile offenders in 1985. Those agreements most often involved charges of driving under the influence or theft. Nearly half the offenders sampled did not voluntartily comply with their diversion agreements or local records did not show that they did. The audit recommends improvements to ensure that offenders have satisfied their diversion conditions before charges against them are dismissed.
Examining Potential Duplication Between Community Corrections and District Court Probation Services
Department of Corrections’ regulations help minimize duplication programs and services. There was no evidence to suggest that a significant number of individuals in community corrections would otherwise have been placed on regular probation. Counties appear to be using community correction funds primarily to provide or enhance corrections programs for D and E felons who otherwise would have been sent to prison.
Court-Ordered Mental Evaluations at State Hospitals
If local funding were available, most competency and presentence evaluations now being done at State hospitals could be performed at much less cost in community mental health centers. Other benefits include faster processing of crimimal cases in district courts, treatment in a less restrictive environment, and better use of State facilities.
Governmental agencies and private organizations that use the services of offenders sentenced by the courts to do community work can be held liable in cases of injury or damages. Community service workers are not covered by worker’s compensation. Although liability insurance is available, not all agencies or organizations have it. The audit also discusses other factors that can limit the use of community service programs, and suggests options for dealing with them.
This audit examines how effective the State’s efforts have been so far in placing a unified court system under the central management of the Supreme Court.Unification hasn’t yet helped reduce the amount of time it takes to process cases at the district court level. In both 1976 and 1978 approximately one-third of the district court cases for which the auditors could get comparable information exceeded the American Bar Association’s six-month time processing standard. The average time needed to process district court cases in the 29 judicial districts was 6.8 months. The auditors found that most delays occur at attorneys’ requests, indicating that attorneys rather than the courts control the pace of litigation in Kansas. Such delays have led to instances where criminal defendants were released without determination of guilt or innocence because speedy trial standards were exceeded. The audit recommends steps the Supreme Court can take to improve the management of the court system and reduce the time it takes to process court cases.The auditors also found little improvement in the management of judicial resources, such as judges, non-judicial employees, and court facilities. Caseload inequities among judges continued after unification. Auditors also found inequities in non-judicial staffing at the district court level and space shortages in some court facilities. Recommendations were made to the Supreme Court to address each of these areas.
Analyzing the State Takeover of Salaries for District Court Personnel
The law calling for the State takeover of salaries establishes a procedure for determining the employees who are to be placed on the State payroll and the salaries they are to receive. The auditors found, however, that in a number of counties these procedures hadn’t been followed. In some cases, poor court and county records made it almost impossible to determine the propriety of the non-judicial payroll under the procedures set forth in the law. In these counties, the budgets did not comply with the law’s requirements. Auditors reconstructed the personnel structure and salary amounts in the counties having these poor records and determined whether the salaries paid by the State were correct. They found that about seven percent of the first monthly payroll of $800,000 was paid either in salaries for positions not authorized under the procedures set forth in the law or in salary increases not authorized under these same procedures.