Governor’s race: Schmidt denounces Kelly’s approach to flaws in Kansas’ foster care system

Candidates tangle on vexing child safety issues from days of Brownback, Colyer

By: and - August 23, 2022 5:47 am
Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly of Topeka, left, and Republican Attorney General Derek Schmidt of Lawrence enter the two-week push ahead of the Nov. 8 election for Kansas governor. (Photos by Sherman Smith and Thad Allton/Kansas Reflector)

Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly of Topeka, left, and Republican Attorney General Derek Schmidt of Lawrence enter the two-week push ahead of the Nov. 8 election for Kansas governor. (Photos by Sherman Smith and Thad Allton/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Republican governor candidate Derek Schmidt shared frustration Tuesday with pace of progress on longstanding challenges of caring for children brought into Kansas’ privatized foster care system due to abuse or neglect.

Schmidt, who serves as the state’s attorney general, said Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly hadn’t kept pledges made during her 2018 campaign to resolve the state’s foster care crisis. Schmidt noted Kelly declared it her “moral obligation” to resolve shortcomings. Schmidt’s objections have roots in service gaps that vexed the Kansas Legislature as well as GOP Govs. Sam Brownback and Jeff Colyer, who preceded Kelly as governor.

In a campaign statement, Schmidt and several of his GOP allies denounced Kelly because hard-to-place children were still sleeping in offices of organizations hired by the state to deliver foster care services. Housing was a point of emphasis for a task force as far back as 2017 that considered ailments of the foster system in Kansas. More recently, the Kansas Department for Children and Families, or DCF, reported 79 children spent nights in foster care contractors’ offices in the months from January 2021 to May 2022.

Schmidt said Kelly had yet to stop children in foster care from running away from residential placements. Three years ago, the state’s daily average of missing foster kids was 90. Colyer created a special response team to track runaways, while Kelly expanded that group to 12 members. DCF says 60 to 75 foster children were missing on a typical day in Kansas. On Monday, DCF’s daily online report on runaways showed 66 of approximately 6,200 foster care children were unaccounted for.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ inspector general also reported 7% of Kansas’ foster care children were absent without leave from July 1, 2018, to Dec. 31, 2020. Colyer was serving as governor for a portion of the 30-month inspection window, but the bulk of the period examined by HHS was on Kelly’s watch.

“It doesn’t have to be this way,” Schmidt said. “She hasn’t fixed the problems she promised to solve. Kansas children deserve better and with the right leadership we can and will do better.”


‘Commonsense win’

Schmidt also questioned Kelly’s use of an executive order in 2021 to launch the Division of Child Advocate to investigate the well-being of youth in foster care by compiling complaints, reviewing practices of child welfare agents, and educating parents and children of their rights.

Kelly relied on her authority as governor because the House and Senate was unwilling to compromise on an oversight bill. The Senate passed legislation in 2021 that would have assigned foster care supervision to Schmidt at the same time he prepared for a partisan showdown with Kelly. The House preferred a bipartisan approach that would have placed the Legislature at the helm.

“Establishment of a child advocate is a commonsense win for Kansas kids and families,” Kelly said. “For years, our state’s essential family services were neglected and underfunded, leaving our kids and families more vulnerable than ever before. Fixing those systematic problems has been a top priority of my administration, and the Division of Child Advocate is a significant step forward to ensure every Kansas child is protected from harm.”

Schmidt criticized Kelly for settling a class-action lawsuit, including a payment of $2.3 million for plaintiffs’ legal fees, that had been filed by Kansas Appleseed, which succeeded in demonstrating the state inadequately cared for foster children. The suit was launched before Kelly took office in 2019, but resolved in 2021.

He further objected to the Kelly administration’s failure to complete annual reports on child sexual abuse reported by abortion clinics. DCF pulled together the 2022 version of the report and worked backward to complete the other annual reports on child sexual abuse that weren’t timely filed by Kelly, Colyer and Brownback administrations in the previous six years.

DCF spokesman Mike Deines said the Brownback administration inexplicably ceased publishing that information in 2016 and no one at DCF resumed that work until questioned earlier this year.

“We have a governor right now that has badly overpromised and underdelivered when it comes to fixing our foster care system,” said Senate President Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican supporting Schmidt’s campaign.


Sweeping under rug

Rep. Patrick Penn, a Wichita Republican also backing the GOP nominee, said he was once in the foster care system and Kelly’s rhetoric didn’t register with wards of the state.

“I know these kids need a governor more focused on setting them up for success, not sweeping her own failures under the rug,” Penn said.

The number of Kansas children in foster care has diminished every year of Kelly’s administration, falling from 7,558 in 2019 to 6,985 in 2020, to 6,737 in 2021 and 6,261 in 2022.

The number mushroomed from 5,200 in 2011 when Brownback took office to more than 7,100 before he resigned in 2018. The figure climbed as Brownback worked with the GOP-led Legislature in 2015 and 2016 to shrink federal food and cash assistance to low-income families. Tens of millions of dollars in aid to Kansas families was blocked under Brownback’s leadership. In the lone year of Colyer’s tenure as governor, the foster care system bulged to nearly 7,700.

In 2022, researchers at the University of Kansas linked a 5% increase in enrollment in federal nutrition assistance programs to a 7.6% to 14.3% reduction in the number of children a state placed in foster care or protective services. The 50-state study of food stamps, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, showed states with more generous SNAP policies had fewer children in state care.

“Having access to the social safety net has an effect on child abuse,” KU economics professor Donna Ginther said. “With so many children in low-income households, poverty is what typically gets people more engaged with child protective services.”

Rep. Jarrod Ousley, a Merriam Democrat, said Republicans were “absolutely desperate” to criticize Kelly’s handling of foster care.

“This administration has made leaps and bounds in improving our child welfare system,” Ousley said. “Are we perfect? No.”

Ousley, the ranking Democrat on the House Children and Seniors Committee, said Kelly had maneuvered the system so fewer children were entering foster care, fewer were sleeping in offices and fewer were missing. She also requested the Legislature make investments in preventative programs and roll back state restrictions on access to important safety net programs.

The governor’s decision to independently create an office of the child advocate appears to be working, Ousley said, because he gets fewer phone calls about problems within the foster care system, and he now has a place to direct people who have concerns.

“Governor Kelly took the football away from the Legislature when they were fighting over where to put the office of the child advocate, and when and what responsibilities,” Ousley said. “Derek Schmidt was a proponent of a terrible idea in the Senate, and even in his testimony he said, ‘If you’re going to do this, you ought to change this, you ought to change that.’ “

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International.

Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the editor in chief of Kansas Reflector. He writes about things that powerful people don't want you to know. A two-time Kansas Press Association journalist of the year, his award-winning reporting includes stories about education, technology, foster care, voting, COVID-19, sex abuse, and access to reproductive health care. Before founding Kansas Reflector in 2020, he spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. He graduated from Emporia State University in 2004, back when the school still valued English and journalism. He was raised in the country at the end of a dead end road in Lyon County.