Kansas governor creates children’s defense division


Kansas is establishing a new office to investigate complaints about the state’s child welfare system and to ensure that the agency governing the system complies with state and federal laws. .

Gov. Laura Kelly created the Children’s Advocate’s Division in an executive order Monday – addressing an issue hotly debated in the state legislature for years amid reports of poor conditions and abuse to the most vulnerable children in the state.

“(Lawmakers) have never given up on finding a solution to a very big problem,” Kelly said. “As often happens, however, during the legislative process it was difficult to reach consensus and time was running out.”

Kelly said the action would ensure the state “will never again let our child welfare services fail our children so badly.”

Lawmakers have been divided over how to create the office and who should control it. Senate Speaker Ty Masterson said he would continue to use a lawyer overseen by the Attorney General.

“The most important thing is that it’s the Office of Administration (executive branch)… that gives me the biggest break,” said Rep. Susan Humphries, a Republican from Wichita who sponsored a bill that placed the office under the direction of the legislature.

Senator Molly Baumgardner, a Republican from Louisbourg who sponsored the Attorney General Control Bill, said Kelly had failed to create a truly independent office by giving herself the power to appoint counsel.

“It is a total disregard for the legislative process,” she said.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), about 21 states, including Missouri, have a children’s advocate office or ombudsperson for children. Seven other states have a state ombudsperson who can also work on child protection cases, the NCSL found.

The Kansas office will receive complaints and investigate complaints on behalf of children in the public system.

He will have access to the archives normally closed to the public.

Each year, the Children’s Advocate’s office will issue a “non-partisan and independent” report to the governor, the legislature and the judiciary, Kelly said. These reports will detail the complaints and make recommendations on how to improve the system.

In addition to investigating complaints, the office will oversee the development and implementation of federal, state, and local child protection laws and recommend changes to law and policy in Kansas.

The Office of the Children’s Advocate, according to the decree, will be part of the new Office of the Public Defenders and will be housed in the Department of Administration.

But, according to the ordinance, the secretary of the Ministry of Administration and this body will have no authority over the lawyer.

“It’s about as independent as it gets,” Kelly said.

The Office of Public Advocates will also include existing ombudsmen for KanCare and long-term care facilities. KanCare’s ombudsman previously reported to the Department of Aging and Disability – moving him from that agency has long been a goal of advocates, said Sean Gatewood, a lobbyist and former state official.

Children’s advocates, who have denounced Kansas’ struggling system for years, see it as a victory.

In 2020, the state implemented major reforms as part of a judicial settlement. The regulation mandated the DCF to no longer allow children to spend the night in offices or to be transported from house to house. He demanded that every child receive a mental health exam while in state care.

Even with these changes, advocates felt that an independent office was still needed to provide oversight and advocate for children.

“I commend Governor Kelly for taking steps to ensure that children and families who are affected by the child welfare system have the opportunity to request and access a truly independent oversight process,” said Lori Ross, founder of FosterAdopt Connect and a lifelong child. lawyer in Kansas and Missouri. “Even when things are working the way they should, child protection is still complicated and difficult.

“The lives and futures of Kansas’ most vulnerable children and their families deserve the additional scrutiny this office will provide.”

Beginning in 2017, The Star spent months covering children’s tragedies and identified many missteps of the DCF and the state system to protect children. In the series “Why So Secret, Kansas?” The Star discovered a widespread effort within the DCF to hide behind privacy laws and internal procedures in order to keep the public from knowing how it works.

Representative Jarrod Ousley, a Democrat from Merriam, has since lobbied for the ombudsman’s office. Even Kelly mentioned the lawmaker on Monday. “Jarrod has never let this problem go,” she said.

The executive order created a program similar to that envisioned by Ousley, but placed it under the office of administration rather than the legislature and made the lawyer appointed to the post of governor.

“I would prefer Bill 2345 to be enacted here today, but if the leadership of the Legislature wants to get into politics with children, I’m happy to see the Governor take matters into his own hands and prioritize to children, ”Ousley said.

During the last session, Ousley believed that the office of the children’s advocate was finally going to exist. A bipartisan group of lawmakers sponsored the bill and passed it out of committee. But the House leadership did not allow the measure to get a debate on the floor.

At that point, Ousley said that no one could explain to him why. Next, a Senate version of the bill was introduced that saw the ombudsman be governed by the Kansas attorney general, an elected position currently held by gubernatorial candidate Derek Schmidt.

While Senate Republicans argued the placement would remove politics from the office, opponents said Schmidt’s ambition for a higher post would make the ombudsman a political tool. Schmidt is now considered the alleged candidate for the Republican nomination to face Kelly next year after former Gov. Jeff Colyer left the race last month.

In a statement, Masterson, the Speaker of the Senate, said he would continue to pursue this version of the bill.

“While I appreciate that the governor has followed the lead of the Senate in recognizing the need for an office of the children’s advocate, it is important that the office be independent and provide effective oversight,” said Masterson.

The Senate version of the bill was passed by the Senate this year, but was not put to a vote in the House.

Kansas Appleseed has worked with Ousley for the past four years to secure a child advocate’s office in the state. Mike Fonkert said he and other members of the nonprofit were “very sad that the legislature did not cross the finish line on a bill in the last session.”

But he, along with lawyers and lawmakers, said Kelly’s order is a critical step toward securing that independent accountability that the Kansas child welfare system has needed for years.

“I think the message is that people care,” said Fonkert, campaign manager for Just from Kansas Appleseed. “There are a lot of state leaders and legislators who are invested in making sure children and families get the responsibility, oversight and, ultimately, the services they deserve. ”

The goal of this next session, Fonkert said, is to work with lawmakers to make the office even stronger and more permanent, even if another governor repeals the decree.

“The governor did a lot of heavy lifting today,” Fonkert said. “We look forward to working with the Legislature to put a bow on this.”

This story was originally published October 4, 2021 5:19 pm.

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Katie Bernard covers the Kansas Legislature and State Government for the Kansas City Star. She joined The Star as a late-breaking journalist in May 2019 before joining the political team in December 2020. Katie studied journalism and political science at the University of Kansas.

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