How long do Kansas foster children have to wait for truly independent accountability?

June 29, 2021 3:33 am

Aaron Carter, a 6-year-old boy with autism, died in February after he was placed with new parents in Wichita. Tina and Jamie Miller, who previously provided foster care for Aaron, believe his death could have been avoided. (Jeff Tuttle for Kansas Reflector)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Grey Endres is a steering committee member of Strengthen Families Rebuild Hope, an independent coalition of organizations and individuals dedicated to reforming Kansas’s foster care system.

Kansas children and families served by the child welfare system deserve accountability, transparency and a truly independent Office of the Child Advocate to provide oversight of our state’s foster care system.

The Office of the Child Advocate is a best practice model that has been effective in other states. Its role is to step in on behalf of children and families who are experiencing unfair treatment as well as issue recommendations for improving policies and practices for the system. By establishing transparent, neutral oversight, this office can also prevent unnecessary removals that in turn will reduce the traumatic impact of poorly managed child welfare.

Children are our future. Subsequently, child welfare should be a bipartisan issue. The word “bipartisan” gets used a lot. Given that actions speak louder than words, Kansans rarely get to see it come to fruition. Legislation to establish the Office of the Child Advocate (House Bill 2345) had strong bipartisan support and passed unanimously out of committee this year.

On March 5, House Bill 2345 was stricken from the legislative calendar, the bill expired, and children were told they will continue to wait.

How or why did a bipartisan bill that would protect Kansas children and families wither and die on the vine? Allowing this bill to expire was a bipartisan failure, a Kansas failure, and the children will continue to wait.

On March 18, another bill (Senate Bill 301) was introduced to the Kansas Senate to establish an Office of the Child Advocate under the Attorney General. Unlike House Bill 2345, this bill lacked both bipartisan support and the critical independence that kids in our state’s care need. In fact, this bill was introduced in an extraordinarily unusual way, nearly two weeks after “turnaround day,” which is the normal deadline for bills to be considered in their chamber of origin. In this bill, all aspects of the office would have been controlled by an elected politician, rather than by an independent child welfare expert.

In 2018, Kansas Department for Children and Families failed more than 50% of the federal standards of the most recent child and family services review. The CFSR is a periodic review to assess whether a state is conforming with federal child welfare requirements, determine what happens when kids and families engage with the system and assist states in achieving positive outcomes. Please take a moment to consider what would happen if your favorite restaurant failed 50% of its health and food regulations.

The federal review looked at standards including safety, engagement, timely permanency and stable placements. While some outcomes have improved for Kansas kids and families, others are looking worse.

Following the settlement of a class-action lawsuit against the state for extreme placement instability and inadequate access to mental health resources, placement instability has decreased significantly. Additionally, the number of children coming into Kansas foster care has also decreased.

On the other hand, racial disparities and foster care recidivism rates are trending upward.

Despite changes to child welfare outcomes, families continue to feel like they have nowhere and no one to turn to.

For instance, Tina and Jamie Miller in Comanche County, who fostered dozens of children over the years, did everything they could to advocate for Aaron Carter, a boy with autism who was in their care for three years. Despite concerns about a family’s preparedness to care for Aaron, he was adopted. Two months after his adoption, Aaron died.

If there was an Office of the Advocate in Kansas, Aaron may still be alive.

The Millers are not alone. Countless children who have been in foster care, biological parents, family members, foster parents and social workers continue to hit walls and often fear retaliation when trying to seek accountability.

It is past time to step up for children, regardless of what side of the aisle you stand. Rep. Jarrod Ousley (D-Merriam) and Rep. Susan Concannon (R-Beloit) demonstrated this well in championing foster care reforms.

House Bill 2345 showed us the way. Our elected officials should seize the opportunity to establish an Office of the Child Advocate and secure the truly independent accountability our state’s kids deserve. The children have waited too long.

Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.

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Grey Endres
Grey Endres

Dr. Grey Endres is a steering committee member of Strengthen Families Rebuild Hope, an independent coalition of organizations and individuals dedicated to reforming Kansas's foster care system. Learn more at RebuildHopeKansas.org.