Republicans see Kansas governor’s order creating child advocate as ‘slap in the face’

By: - October 5, 2021 12:37 pm

Sen. Richard Hilderbrand, R-Galena, blasts the governor during a foster care oversight hearing Tuesday for independently forming an Office of the Child Advocate. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Gov. Laura Kelly’s independent action to establish an Office of the Child Advocate a day ahead of the inaugural meeting of a child welfare oversight committee didn’t impress Republican members of the panel.

Sen. Richard Hilderbrand, a Galena Republican who serves as chairman of the committee, called the governor’s decision to bypass legislators through executive order a “slap in the face.”

“Don’t get me wrong, the Office of the Child Advocate is a needed position, a position that has been needed for a long time,” Hilderbrand said at the start of Tuesday’s meeting. “I just find it very, very troublesome that the governor decided on the eve of the first meeting of this committee, which one of our tasks was to look at this, they decide to issue an executive order forming it.”

The Democratic governor on Monday announced she was forming the office and relocating divisions of two state agencies under the authority of the Department of Administration. Her allies in the Legislature praised the move after years in which efforts to install a child advocate failed to gain interest or got tied up in political wrangling, as was the case in the 2021 session.

“Everybody is in agreement here that we needed this office,” said Rep. Jarrod Ousley, D-Merriam. “This office is going to be good for the kids. I applaud the governor’s efforts by taking the reins and establishing this office now and not wasting any more time letting it get caught up in politics.”

Rep. Jarrod Ousley, D-Merriam, praises the governor for taking action after years of political hangups in the Legislature. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Ousley for five years has pursued legislation to establish a child advocate to field complaints about the Kansas foster care system and investigate them. He secured bipartisan support for a House bill this past session that would have had the advocate report directly to the Legislature, but House leadership killed the bill before it received a vote.

The Senate passed a competing plan that would have placed the office under Attorney General Derek Schmidt, a Republican trying to unseat Kelly as governor in next year’s elections.

Child advocates opposed the politically charged Senate plan but have long pushed for more accountability of the privatized foster care system administered by the Department for Children and Families.

Republicans complained that Kelly’s executive order allows the governor to choose a child advocate without legislative approval. They also questioned whether the decision to relocate positions through an executive order is constitutional. Those moves typically require the governor to propose a reorganization, which the Legislature has to approve.

Sen. Molly Baumgardner, R-Louisburg, says the governor’s decision to place the Office of the Child Advocate within the Department of Administration won’t improve oversight of the foster care system. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

By placing the new office within the governor’s administration, said Sen. Molly Baumgardner, R-Louisburg, the governor is merely shifting complaints from one department to another.

“We will learn about harms and dangers and failures of the system when our reporters call us and say, ‘Would you please comment on this?'” Baumgardner said. “We’re not going to find out this from the office of child advocacy. We’re not going to find out from the secretary of DCF.”

Democrats praised the governor for establishing the office after years of legislative inaction.

“Can we take some joy in the fact that what has been established will help save lives of children?” said Sen. Cindy Holscher, D-Overland Park. “To me, that’s a very big deal. That’s a huge victory for the kids in our state. We’ve been waiting. The kids have been waiting. Advocates have been waiting for years for something like this to be established.”

Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, D-Wichita, pointed to the recent death of a 17-year-old who died in police custody. The boy had been placed in a foster home by Saint Francis Ministries, the state’s largest foster care provider.

When the foster father called Saint Francis about the boy’s erratic behavior, Faust-Goudeau said, he was told it would be two hours before someone could help. Instead, he was taken into custody by police and died after an altercation at a juvenile detention facility.

“Had that foster dad been able to talk to someone directly right away, that young man may still be alive,” Faust-Goudeau said.

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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.