For accountable, transparent child welfare, Kansas families deserve an Office of the Child Advocate

Kathy Winters, right, comforts Cindy Poe following Poe's testimony in September to the Kansas Legislature's Special Committee on Foster Care Oversight about the death of her grandchild within the foster care system. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Natalie Zarate and Grey Endres are steering committee members of Strengthen Families Rebuild Hope, an independent coalition of organizations and individuals dedicated to reforming Kansas’s foster care system.

Amid the growing roar of our national political scene, some of our locally elected officials got together to conduct one of the most important roles of government oversight.

On Sept. 22 and 23, the Kansas Legislature’s Special Committee on Foster Care Oversight held two days of hearings and heard heart-wrenching stories from family members of children involved in the foster care system, as well as testimony from advocates and stakeholders on a variety of topics.

What is clear to anyone who tuned in is reforming our foster care system is a huge job with many moving parts, including issues that deserve increased attention. It is daunting work and a massive undertaking that warrants extensive legislative accountability, and we are grateful for the Special Committee on Foster Care Oversight.

For two days, we heard testimony about rampant issues — like foster children being medicated at three times the rate of the general population, or how school records routinely fail to follow kids to new schools in a timely fashion. Despite these stories, we heard an additional theme: Each case is different.

Sometimes families overcome challenges and should be reunified. Sometimes they shouldn’t. And sometimes what is true today, or this month, won’t be true next month. People struggle. People succeed. One-size-fits-all policies are difficult to come by in this world, and the ones that exist may disadvantage some people because of racial or other biases.

However, a few days of hearings in late September is not enough.

Perhaps the most crucial part of this system is whether it can be shown that the process was fair. Families stepped up to tell the Special Committee their stories. Those stories contained allegations of drugging kids unnecessarily, separating families due to spite, perverse monetary incentives of contractors, and even the death of a child in care because of neglectful foster parents.

A legislative oversight committee will never be able to examine the individual cases they heard during testimony, let alone the thousands of other cases they didn’t hear about — each one with its own family or families, children, providers and workers involved.

Legislative oversight is crucial, but we must do more for a system that is designed to be the caretaker of children when their families are not able. This system deserves robust, full-time, professional accountability and transparency. That’s why we continue to advocate for the establishment of an independent Office of the Child Advocate.

This model provides an independent, reliable oversight mechanism capable of examining cases on an individual level, as well as issuing recommendations for improving policies and practices for the system at a macro level.

The Office of the Child Advocate model is effective in other states, including our neighbor Missouri. It has been shown to be able to address individual cases and would be able to intervene on behalf of children and families who are not treated fairly. It can also reduce unnecessary removals. And most importantly, when established in a truly independent way, it gives parents and families involved in the system a place to turn to that isn’t part of the same system that took their children away.

Kansas families deserve to have an Office of the Child Advocate.

Kansas families deserve fair, accountable, transparent child welfare. Each day we wait to create the Office of the Child Advocate, more children and their families are entering the Kansas foster care system, and the trauma of the system continues to spread across our state. The time is now to establish this proven model for success.

Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. For information, including how to submit your own commentary, click here.