‘This is a tragedy’: Lawmakers want accountability after death of Kansas foster child

By: - June 2, 2021 11:39 am

Rep. Jarrod Ousley says the Legislature should establish an Office of the Child Advocate, expand Medicaid, and reconsider the privatized child welfare system. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Lawmakers say the death of an autistic boy in state custody demonstrates the need for more accountability within the Kansas foster care system.

Kansas Reflector on Tuesday published the results of an investigation into the death in February of Aaron Carter, a 6-year-old boy with autism.

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Foster parents Tina and Jamie Miller, who previously cared for Carter for three years, had told employees with the Kansas Department for Children and Families and Saint Francis Ministries that the boy’s new parents weren’t prepared to handle a nonverbal child with severe behavioral outbursts. The boy’s cause of death remains unknown.

The report explored a systemic failure to provide necessary medical care for foster children who are diagnosed with autism — a result of inadequate funding from the Legislature and a shortage of trained behavioral therapists in Kansas.

Senate President Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican, and Rep. Jarrod Ousley, a Merriam Democrat, responded to the story with renewed calls for establishing an Office of the Child Advocate. The two have different ideas for how the office would operate, but the underlying goal is to provide an investigative authority outside of the foster care system where families can take their complaints.

“This is a tragedy and is a failure of DCF and Saint Francis, the contractor,” Masterson said. “This highlights exactly why we proposed the creation of an independent Office of Child Advocate that would bring needed accountability to the system.”

In addition to establishing an independent office to review complaints about the foster care system, Ousley said the state should expand Medicaid and roll back punitive limitations on food assistance programs.

Kansas is one of the few remaining states to not expand Medicaid to provide health insurance coverage to more low-income families and children, which would fortify services by bringing an estimated annual investment of $1 billion in federal funding to the state.

The Legislature under former Gov. Sam Brownback restricted access to federal food assistance programs with the passage of the Hope Act. The number of children entering the foster care system skyrocketed as families struggled to feed their children.

Ousley also said the state’s privatized system of foster care isn’t working. Kansas made the decision in 1996 to place the child welfare system under the operation of nonprofit contractors.

“It is heartbreaking to read of the loss of another child’s life here in Kansas,” Ousley said. “Aaron Carter needed access to services and protections.”

Rep. Susan Concannon, a Beloit Republican and chairwoman of the House Children and Seniors Committee, said a child in state custody “deserves better than this tragic ending.”

Concannon led efforts this year to establish a new child welfare oversight committee. She said the committee will address multiple issues identified in the Kansas Reflector story about Carter’s death.

Among the concerns is the appearance of retaliation against the Millers. The Millers, who provided care to dozens of foster children and adopted three, recently learned their license to provide foster care has been revoked. After Carter’s death in February, DCF cited them for an incident that happened in 2017. The Millers believe they lost their license for speaking out about Carter’s death.

“I would like to thank Tina and Jamie Miller for opening their home to so many children in need of a safe, secure place to live,” Concannon said. “This is not the first story of retaliation that I’ve heard about, and you can be assured, we will be looking into it.”

Nebraska state Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh expressed concerns with the handling of the case by Saint Francis, which has contracts to provide child welfare services for parts of Kansas and the Omaha, Nebraska, region.

Saint Francis has been a lightning rod for controversy following the revelation of financial mismanagement by former leadership, who left the organization in November. Former CEO Robert “Father Bobby” Smith knowingly underbid a contract with Nebraska, and the state had to renegotiate a more costly deal earlier this year.

The organization has failed to meet expectations for case loads and other metrics tracked by Nebraska officials.

“My fear is that it is only a matter of time before we see a child die in Nebraska as a result of this type of institutional mismanagement and neglect of the facts by Saint Francis Ministries,” Cavanaugh said.

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Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the 2021 and 2022 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. He is a lifelong Kansan.