TOPEKA — A Senate panel advanced legislation Monday that would install a child advocate in the Kansas Attorney General’s Office to investigate and report on problems in the foster care system.
Republicans on the committee revised the plan in an attempt to address concerns raised about turning the position into a hyper-political tool in next year’s governor’s race. They also narrowed the scope of children who could be investigated and installed judicial oversight for subpoenas.
Rep. Jarrod Ousley, a Democrat from Merriam who spent four years working on the House bill with input from judges, foster parents, biological parents, pediatricians, and the child advocate from Missouri, said he was disappointed the Senate was using the name “child advocate” to describe the new position. The House bill was co-sponsored by 11 Republicans and seven Democrats, and received unanimous support in committee, but wasn’t given consideration by the full House.
If the Senate plan is the only option, Ousley said, he won’t support it.
“I know the kids deserve it. They deserved it years ago, and there’s no arguing that we need it, but we do need to get it right,” Ousley said.
Sen. Molly Baumgardner, R-Louisburg, clashed with Sen. Ethan Corson, D-Prairie Village, over which plan would best serve foster children in Kansas.
Baumgardner incorrectly told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee that the House bill would place the child advocate in the governor-controlled Department of Administration, and that the only proponents of the House plan were people who work in the foster care industry. The House plan actually has the child advocate report directly to the Legislature, and the plan received widespread support from former foster children, parents, and advocacy groups.
Under the House plan, the governor and chief justice of the Kansas Supreme Court would nominate a child advocate, and the Senate would have to endorse the pick.
“I can’t think of anything more political,” Baumgardner said.
Under the amended Senate plan, the chairperson of a new foster care oversight committee will receive applicants for the child advocate and forward three finalists to the attorney general for consideration. The child advocate would serve a two-year term under the attorney general.
“They’re working with the courts that are working with agencies that are helping our children, and it is the responsibility of the attorney general to investigate every death of a child in the state of Kansas,” Baumgardner said.
Attorney General Derek Schmidt, who is running for governor in next year’s election, testified in support of the Senate plan last week, along with Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover.
Corson said he support having a child advocate in Kansas but that the Senate plan “feels a little bit rushed.”
“There was not a single proponent of the bill other than politicians,” Corson said.
Sen. Mike Thompson, R-Shawnee, said he favored the Senate plan because it was only five pages, compared to 19 for the House. He was mistakenly looking at a five-page amendment. The Senate bill is 21 pages.
Rachel Marsh, executive director of the Children’s Alliance, said the changes made by the Senate Judiciary Committee didn’t fully address concerns with giving the child advocate broad access to sensitive records.
“We still have an entire bill that was overreaching and overbroad to start with, and will have to be significantly modified in order for it to serve the best interests of children and families,” Marsh said.