Senate panel advances plan to install child advocate under Kansas attorney general

By: - March 29, 2021 3:27 pm

Sen. Molly Baumgardner, R-Louisburg, proposes amendments Monday to address some concerns raised with the Senate’s plan for a child advocate. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

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. Ethan Corson, D-Prairie Village, says the only supporters of the Senate plan are politicians. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

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.

Rachel Marsh, executive director of the Children’s Alliance, watches debate Monday on a revised plan for the child advocate. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

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.

The committee inserted the rewritten version of Senate Bill 301 into the unrelated House Bill 2153, then approved the legislation with Corson and Sen. David Haley, D-Kansas City, opposed.

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Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the Kansas Press Association’s journalist of the year. He has written award-winning news stories about the instability of the Kansas foster care system, misconduct by government officials, sexual abuse, technology, education, and the Legislature. He previously spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. A lifelong Kansan, he graduated from Emporia State University in 2004 as a Shepherd Scholar with a degree in English.