Legislators warm up to possibility of independent monitor for Kansas foster care system

Sen. Molly Baumgardner, R-Louisburg, said there is not yet enough information to issue a recommendation in support of the Office of the Child Advocate but that something along those lines warrants serious consideration. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — A Kansas legislative committee placed bipartisan support behind consideration of an independent agency to monitor services and complaints in Kansas’ maligned foster care system.

The Office of the Child Advocate would be tasked with assuring children in the system receive adequate care through services provided by the Kansas Department of Children and Families, the agency overseeing the state’s foster care system.

The office would investigate and resolve complaints made by or on behalf of children receiving state services, and would have access to relevant records and open lines of communication with any child in protective services.

“It is an issue worthy of consideration that does need to be addressed in some manner,” said Sen. Molly Baumgardner, a Louisburg Republican. “As we go through what was said by private citizens, by those in the system, and even the testimony we’ve heard here today indicates that there is a sense of frustration. There’s not really a place to go to have someone come through and untangle what seems to be a messy situation.”

Legislators on the Special Committee on Foster Care Oversight discussed Wednesday final recommendations to come from hearings that took place the past three months, including the possible creation of the Office of the Child Advocate and the establishment of a permanent foster care oversight committee.

Kansas Appleseed, an advocacy organization working to bring reform to the state’s foster care system, urged the committee during a September hearing to consider the creation of the new office as a recommendation in its final report. The organization, which settled in July a lawsuit with the state over the treatment of children in foster care, began advocating for an independent oversight office last year.

Baumgardner, vice-chairwoman for the committee, said there was not yet enough information for the special committee to issue a recommendation in support of the office. However, with bordering states like Missouri and Nebraska having a similar office, Baumgardner said, there should be serious thought put into the idea.

A proposal to create an independent agency to address complaints and evaluate DCF was placed in legislation that died without action following a Kansas House hearing earlier this year. The bill proposed by Rep. Jarrod Ousley, D-Merriam, would have placed the office under the purview of the Department of Administration.

Because of concerns over what the 2021 legislative session may bring amid COVID-19, Ousley said he plans to pre-file the bill again this year.

“The bill would have easily made it out of committee last session, but then COVID hit,” Ousley said. “After the momentum that came out of that hearing, I felt like it was a real positive. I’d like to get it going quickly and ultimately benefit kids in Kansas.”

DCF secretary Laura Howard acknowledged the difficulties her office has encountered in the past but said the agency has made progress during her tenure.

Laura Howard, secretary for the Kansas Department for Children and Families, said the agency has made meaningful progress during her tenure. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

“I knew coming in that we would we needed to take some immediate steps to try to turn that trajectory, but also try to begin to put in place a foundation that begins to get to some of the longer-term sustained progress you all have talked about,” Howard said to the committee. “We feel proud of the progress we’ve made thus far, although I’m certainly not satisfied.”

Howard touted a decrease in the number of youths in care from 7,600 at the end of 2019 to just more than 6,800 this year. She also cited increased placement stability, with 64% of Kansas youths in care at or below the federal standard of 4.4 moves per 1,000 days.

Despite these improvements, legislators agreed the state’s foster care system warrants further oversight. 

Wednesday’s hearings were the last scheduled for the special committee, but Rep. Susan Concannon, a Beloit Republican and chairwoman of the committee, recommended a permanent oversight board be created.

“I think this committee has been a really good experience, and six days of hearings full of valuable information,” Concannon said. “My recommendation is that we introduce that legislation and try to get that through early in the session, so we can continue to work at this committee.” 

Committee members approved Concannon’s recommendation unanimously.