Kansas governor picks nonprofit attorney to fill new child advocate position

By: - December 2, 2021 3:25 pm

Gov. Laura Kelly says she is confident the child advocate can ensure children in state custody get the services they need, when they need them. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Gov. Laura Kelly announced Thursday she has selected Kerrie Lonard to serve as the top advocate for Kansas foster children.

Lonard has worked as an attorney for the past 14 years at Kansas Legal Services, a nonprofit law firm for low-income residents. She is also a former social worker.

“I am honored to have this opportunity to serve the families and children of Kansas,” Lonard said. “The mission to advance the wellbeing of those involved in the child welfare system is close to my heart and has been a driving force throughout my professional life. I’m committed to the long road and hard work ahead.”

The Democratic governor in October created the Division of the Child Advocate after lawmakers failed to compromise on competing plans to establish the office. Republicans balked at the governor’s executive action to place the position within her administration, arguing that children in foster care need independent oversight.

Kelly said Lonard is “committed to independence and transparency.”

“I am confident that under her leadership, the Division of the Child Advocate will fulfill its purpose — to ensure all Kansans in our child welfare system are getting the services they need, when they need them,” Kelly said.

The foster care system in Kansas has been widely scrutinized for years, heightening interest in creating an office of the child advocate.

Legislation passed in 2015 and 2016 severely restricted access to federal food and cash assistance for the state’s lowest-income families, leading to a dramatic increase in the number of children entering the foster care system. The cash-strapped state also began secretly withholding payments to the nonprofit contractors who manage the foster care system.

The number of children who went missing nearly doubled from 2015 to 2018, foster kids more frequently moved from one home to another, kids were sleeping in office spaces, case loads for some social workers skyrocketed, and several children were killed after multiple warnings of abuse were overlooked.

Top managers at Saint Francis Ministries, the largest foster care contractor in Kansas, were forced out in November 2020 following revelations of financial misconduct that had been leaked to the state a year earlier. The Kansas Department of Children and Families has yet to finalize a report on those financial problems.

In June, Kansas Reflector reported on the death of an autistic boy in foster care, and a systemic failure to connect autistic children with the services they need.

The Kelly administration in January settled a lawsuit with Kansas Appleseed over the state’s failure to provide adequate care to children in state custody. The resolution requires the state to make progress in stability and mental health services.

Lonard will be tasked with installing accountability for public and private entities involved in the child welfare system. That includes receiving complaints on behalf of children, reviewing practices, providing nonpartisan reports, improving coordination among state agencies and contractors, and educating children and families of their rights.

“I look forward to that day in our future when we can all state confidently that all families and children in Kansas are receiving the services they need and that all of our children are safe from harm and neglect, that they are cherished, and they are thriving,” Lonard said.

Kansas Appleseed has pushed for creation of a child advocate in recent years to allow for independent investigations into the foster care system. The organization backed a bipartisan House plan to have the child advocate report directly to the Legislature. A Senate plan would have placed the position under Republican Attorney General Derek Schmidt, who is running for governor in next year’s election.

Jami Reever, executive director of Kansas Appleseed, applauded the governor’s decision to create the position herself.

“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 in October. “The Division of the Child Advocate is the transparent and truly independent watchdog our kids, families, social workers and communities need.”

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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.