TOPEKA – Governor Laura Kelly announced Monday the establishment of a child attorney division to circumvent efforts by the Kansas Senate to put an office overseeing the child welfare system under the direction of an attorney general who is moving to higher office next year.
The legislation The Senate proposal was rejected by some Democrats and advocacy groups on the grounds that it would give Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, who is running for governor, unprecedented access to information about foster care in previous administrations. The measure then fizzled out Past the Senate, 31-4.
A measure emanating from the House of Representatives with a different plan was removed from the legislative calendar following the approval of the committee.
Kelly said the children’s attorney, to be appointed by the governor and appointed for a five-year term, will investigate complaints, recommend structural changes to lawmakers, and ensure cross-agency collaboration.
“Establishing an attorney for children is an asset to the children and families of Kansas,” said Kelly at the signing the implementing regulations. “For years our state’s essential family services have been neglected and underfunded – making our children and families more vulnerable than ever. Addressing these systemic issues is a top priority for my administration, and the child advocate department is a significant step forward in ensuring that every child in Kansas is protected from harm. ”
Other duties of the department include drafting complaints on behalf of those in the child welfare system, reviewing the practices of child welfare officials, and educating children and parents about their rights within the system. Proponents said this action was necessary to pave the way for possible abuse or neglect of children in Kansas.
Kelly said the child attorney will work under the newly established Office of Public Advocates at the Department of Administration. The office will also maintain the KanCare ombudsman and the long-term care ombudsman.
The governor had previously proposed subordinating the office to the Department of Administration, but the idea did not take off given concerns about independent oversight. Rep. Jarrod Ousley, a Merriam Democrat and longtime advocate of setting up such an office, said he would have preferred to see the House of Representatives model successful but was glad Kelly acted if lawmakers didn’t.
“It will reduce the number of children being cared for, it will reduce trauma, and it will extend placements,” Ousley said. “The children benefit from this.”
In the past three months, the number of missing foster children has fluctuated between 60 and 82 every day. 64 children are currently missing.
Reports of neglect and extraordinary tragedies have hastened the advance for the child advocate department. Jami Reever, executive director of the Kansas Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, praised efforts to ensure genuine oversight and accountability for the state’s care system.
“All children in Kansas deserve a bright and bright future, and we are excited to work with leaders to continue building a more prosperous, inclusive, and just state,” said Reever. “The child advocate department is the transparent and truly independent watchdog that our children, families, social workers and communities need.”
Senate President Ty Masterson welcomed the governor’s efforts and recognition of the issue, but was skeptical that the move would provide adequate oversight.
“It’s important that the office is independent and has real oversight,” said the Andover Republican. “In the previous session, the Senate passed (a bill) that created a truly independent Office of Child Advocate that would bring accountability and transparency to the child welfare system in Kansas. This is the more appropriate course that we will continue in the next session. “
Senate minority leader Dinah Sykes, a Democrat from Lenexa, reiterated child welfare lawyers’ arguments that the Senate model was impractical and far too partisan during the session earlier this year. She said the governor’s route was a good compromise.
Sykes left the door open for further discussion in the Senate on how this model can be turned into law through 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) works before we get into the meeting, and it shows some success so that everyone can support it and so that we have protection for our children if the future governor decides to not to keep this because they are our best asset, ”she said.