By establishing a new division to maintain review and oversight of the child welfare system, Gov. Laura Kelly avoided legislative disputes that have thus far frozen the creation of such an office. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — Gov. Laura Kelly announced Monday the establishment of a Division of the Child Advocate, circumventing an effort by the Kansas Senate to place an office overseeing the child welfare system under the direction of an attorney general seeking higher office next year.
The legislation proposed by the Senate was opposed by some Democrats and advocacy groups because it would give Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, who is running for governor, unprecedented access to information about how foster care issues have been handled by past administrations. The measure fizzled after passing the Senate, 31-4.
A measure originating in the House with a differing plan was struck from the legislative calendar after receiving committee approval.
Kelly said the child advocate, who is to be appointed by the governor and serve a five-year term, will investigate complaints, recommend structural changes to lawmakers and ensure interagency cooperation.
“The establishment of a child advocate is a commonsense win for Kansas kids and families,” Kelly said in signing the executive order. “For years, our state’s essential family services were neglected and underfunded – leaving our kids and families more vulnerable than ever before. Fixing those systemic problems has been a top priority for my administration, and the Division of the Child Advocate is a significant step forward to ensure every Kansas child is protected from harm.”
Among other duties of the division will be to compile complaints on behalf of those in the child welfare system, review practices of child welfare agents, and educate children and parents as to their rights within the system. Advocates said this action was needed to provide an outlet for potential abuse or neglect of Kansas children.
Kelly said the child advocate will work under the newly established Office of Public Advocates in the Department of Administration. The office will also hold the KanCare ombudsman and long-term care ombudsman.
The governor had previously proposed housing the office under the Department of Administration, but the idea did not gain traction over concerns of independent oversight. Rep. Jarrod Ousley, a Merriam Democrat and longtime advocate for the establishment of such an office, said he would have preferred to see the House model succeed but was glad Kelly acted if legislators would not.
“It’s going to reduce the kids in care, it’s going to reduce trauma and it’s going to extend placements,” Ousley said. “It’s going to benefit the kids.”
Over the past three months, the number of missing foster children has ranged from 60 to 82 on any given day. Currently, 64 children are unaccounted for.
Reports of neglect and extraordinary tragedies have accelerated the push for the Division of the Child Advocate. Jami Reever, executive director of the Kansas Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, applauded the effort to provide true oversight and accountability for the state’s foster care system.
“All Kansas children deserve bright and hopeful futures, and we are thrilled to work in partnership with state leaders to continue to build a more thriving, inclusive and just state,” Reever said. “The Division of the Child Advocate is the transparent and truly independent watchdog our kids, families, social workers and communities need.”
Senate President Ty Masterson applauded the governor’s efforts and recognition of the issue, but he was skeptical this action would provide appropriate oversight.
“It is important that the office be independent and provide real oversight,” the Andover Republican said. “This past session, the Senate adopted (a bill) which created a true independent Office of Child Advocate that would bring accountability and transparency to the child welfare system in Kansas. This is the more appropriate course and one we will continue to pursue next session.”
Senate Minority Leader Dinah Sykes, a Lenexa Democrat, reiterated arguments made by child welfare advocates during the session earlier this year that the Senate model was unworkable and far too partisan. She said the governor’s route offers a good compromise.
Sykes left the door open to further conversations in the Senate on how to pass this model into law via the Legislature. As it stands, the executive order could easily be reversed by a future governor.
“I hope we can actually see how (this model) is working before we get into session and it shows some success so that everyone can support it and so that if the future governor decides not to keep this that we do have protections for our children because they’re our best asset,” she said.
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