Parents, grandparents of Kansas foster kids cry out for new oversight office

Randy Puett, whose child was in foster care in 2019, embraces the grandmother of another foster child during a hearing Wednesday at the Statehouse on the creation of an Office of the Child Advocate. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Adrian Jones’ grandmother believes he would still be alive if there had been an Office of the Child Advocate in place when he pleaded for relief from unimaginable torture.

The Kansas Department for Children and Families ignored repeated warnings about the torture of Jones by his biological father and stepmother before the 7-year-old boy’s remains were found in 2015. He had been tortured, starved to death and fed to pigs.

Judy Conway said her grandson “told people over and over again” about the beatings he suffered. His stepmother recorded video of the abuse, which included strapping the child to an inversion table and using a Taser on him for up to 20 seconds at a time.

“Our children desperately need for us to be their voices, and an advocacy office would give that to them,” Conway said. “Preventing child abuse and neglect is not someone else’s business. It’s our business.”

Conway on Wednesday delivered her remarks via video in support of creating the Office of the Child Advocate in a hearing before the House Children and Seniors Committee. Lawmakers are considering the merits of adding a layer of oversight to the foster care system because of ongoing concerns about the instability of child placements and revelations of financial mismanagement at Saint Francis Ministries.

Rep. Jarrod Ousley, D-Merriam, filed House Bill 2345 with 17 cosponsors, including Rep. Susan Concannon, a Republican from Beloit who serves as chairwoman of the House committee. Under the proposed bill, the child advocate would report to the Legislature. The office would have a nine-member staff dedicated to investigating complaints about the well-being of children in state custody, ensuring coordination among state agencies and court services, and providing recommendations to lawmakers.

The governor and chief justice of the Kansas Supreme Court would appoint the child advocate to a six-year term.

“The system’s broken,” Concannon said. “We’re failing kids, and we’ve got to work in every one of those gaps that we can to fix it.”

DCF opposes placing the office under the Legislature, rather than in the Department of Administration. Proponents of the bill say it is important to keep the advocate independent of the executive branch.

Heidi Beal testifies Wednesday before the House Children and Seniors Committee. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

“We need a group of individuals who are not entangled at all with the system,” said Heidi Beal, who testified about her struggles to get answers from DCF or Saint Francis, the state’s largest foster care contractor, after her children were taken into state custody.

“I’m about to say a bold thing, but this is how I feel, because I’ve been doing this for over two years now,” Beal said. “If we allow DCF to investigate or Saint Francis to audit themselves, that is the same to me as allowing a criminal defendant to act as his own judge and jury.”

Last year, an internal investigation by Saint Francis confirmed allegations of financial mismanagement by its former CEO and COO. New leadership supports the idea of an Office of the Child Advocate.

Randy Puett testified about his daughter’s experience after being placed in the care of KVC Kansas in 2019. The 15-year-old spent her days in an office in Topeka, then was taken to emergency placements, including shelters, to spend the night. On the fifth night, she jumped out of a second-story window and ran away. Nobody notified Puett.

The father found out she was missing nine days later when he ran into an acquaintance who had recently seen his daughter. She reconnected with him after reading a Topeka Capital-Journal story about Puett placing fliers around town.

“Somebody needs to be an open set of eyes, other than DCF or KVC, and they don’t need to be joined. We need them separated,” Puett said.

Rachelle Coberly said she couldn’t to get anyone to listen to her concerns that her daughter wasn’t getting the care she needed from Saint Francis. The girl once tried to kill herself while in the foster care system by swallowing a 500-count bottle of ibuprofen. Another time, as the daughter contemplated suicide, the mother stayed on the phone with her until officers arrived.

Now, Coberly said, she can no longer be a voice for her daughter because her parental right have been terminated.

“I was betrayed by a state that said they would come in and help put my family back together,” Coberly said.

She missed her daughter’s birthday for the first time in November, when she turned 14.

“I’ve never felt so low and dismissed, because I had no one to talk to,” Coberly said. “I felt very wronged by Saint Francis and DCF.”

Concannon said she plans to take action on the bill next week, after working out some minor revisions with Ousley.

Correction: An earlier version of this story indicated DCF opposes the bill. DCF indicated it would support the Office of the Child Advocate if it were placed under the Department of Administration.