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Parents plead for accountability and support from Kansas foster care system | #childsafety | #kids | #chldern | #parents | #schoolsafey

TOPEKA — Tissues clutched in her fist, Sherry Lesher stood before lawmakers Thursday with an urn containing the ashes of her 17-year-old son.

AJ, her son, died in 2017 from a drug overdose after years of trying to find help from the state. The day before AJ died in his sleep, Lesher begged that he be taken from her in the hopes of finding help after a recent drug test found Oxycontin in his system, but he was left in the home. Family Preservation services are used by the foster care system to keep children in homes and work with parents to solve issues while taking care of the child’s safety. 

“Family Preservation’s goal was to keep him in the home,” Lesher said. ”He’ll be in the home forever now.”

Before his death, AJ lived with multiple diagnoses, including autism, and struggled with impulsive decision making, causing him to act like a young child. His family said that while he died of an overdose, he was not an addict but an unregulated kid who didn’t get the support he needed.

Lesher and Ashley Crego, AJ’s sister, joined others frustrated by the foster care system during a legislative committee on child welfare oversight Thursday. Many speakers shared frustrations with the system, and some came to the lectern fighting tears from hearing testimony.

The day before AJ died, Lesher stood in the kitchen arguing with him about a recent, failed drug test. During the argument, Lesher begged a therapist for Saint Francis Ministries, the state’s largest foster care contractor, to take AJ. But her son said he wouldn’t take drugs again, and the therapist left

“The next day, I go to wake my child up,” Lesher said. “He never woke up again.”

Sherry Lesher rests a hand protectively around her son’s urn as Ashley Crego reacts to testimony during a legislative committee on child welfare oversight Thursday. (Sam Bailey/Kansas Reflector)

When AJ was alive, his family felt they didn’t get the support they needed. Lesher said the state wouldn’t provide mental health services to AJ through a psychiatric residential treatment facility, even though he ended up spending time at one for being a danger to himself due to his impulsive nature.

Even after his death, AJ’s family said they were still being hurt by the system. Lesher said the therapist who left her with AJ the night of his death continually called her, asking if the autopsy had come back yet, and would park his car on the road weeks afterward. Lesher said she had to file a cease and desist to get him to leave them alone.

Additionally, Saint Francis continued to bill the family after AJ died, including a bill for attending AJ’s funeral, even though no one from Saint Francis attended.

“The rail for my brother’s viewing was only large enough to hold about six people at a time,” Crego said. “Not only was I present the whole time, but I was also the last person to say goodbye to my little brother. I know who was there.”

Lesher said AJ’s death broke her family. Her grandchildren, close friends with AJ, could not visit their house two years after his death. Lesher and Crego also suffered tolls to their mental health, with Lesher attempting suicide on multiple occasions.

Lesher voiced her anger with the foster care system during her testimony before lawmakers. She said any trained professional should have seen what was happening to AJ.

“As long as they keep making those stakeholders happy, who cares about the kids? Who cares about AJ? It was only my child,” Lesher said.

Several other individuals spoke before the Legislature to vent their grievances with the foster care system, including a one-time foster parent who has no plans of returning to the system due to a lack of support. 

Laura Howard, department of children and families secretary, speaks during a legislative committee on child welfare oversight
Laura Howard, Kansas Department of Children and Families secretary, speaks during the legislative committee on child welfare oversight. (Sam Bailey/Kansas Reflector)

Laura Howard, secretary of the Kansas Department for Children and Families, spoke after those who shared their stories and told lawmakers about various updates in DCF and statistics in foster care. When given the opportunity to respond to the speakers and share some comfort, she said she is always looking for the gaps in the system that need improvement.

“(I appreciate) the willingness of folks to comment and kind of share their pain in a public way really with the hope of seeing improvements in a system, because I think that’s what we all want to see,” Howard said.

Lesher said none of the entities who were supposed to care for AJ have apologized or shown any accountability for his death. After Howard spoke, Crego said she feels like the past five years she’s been “screaming to the void” to try and get someone to listen and acknowledge AJ existed.

“The only task more daunting than trying to breathe the entire essence of such a beautiful life into five minutes has been trying to hold the agencies who helped make his death a reality accountable for over five years to no avail,” Crego said.


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