TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Child welfare advocates in Kansas are pushing for an independent agency to monitor the state’s troubled foster care system.
Nonprofit advocacy group Kansas Appleseed, with support from some lawmakers, wants the state to create an Office of the Child Advocate to investigate complaints and track child welfare agencies, primarily the state Department for Children and Families, which oversees the foster care system.
Legislation creating the office has been introduced for three years, getting its first hearing — but no vote — this year.
“We’re talking about a system with six, seven thousand kids — depending on what month you’re looking at — and these are kids in the custody of the state,” said Mike Fonkert, campaign director at Kansas Appleseed. “So having robust oversight that makes sure this system is functioning appropriately is absolutely necessary.”
The foster care system has come under repeated fire in recent years. In July, Kansas settled a class-action lawsuit filed by Kansas Appleseed, which accused the state of not providing foster children with adequate mental health care and moving them too frequently between homes.
That same month, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ inspector general released an audit that said foster care children in Kansas have been living at risk in group homes with broken windows, mold, exposed electrical wiring, trashed porches and rodent droppings.
Fonkert said oversight from an independent agency would ensure similar reports are released more frequently.
State Rep. Susan Concannon, a Beloit Republican who is chairwoman of the Special Committee on Foster Care Oversight, says a new agency is unnecessary. Guardians ad litem and Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), attorneys and community volunteers who advocate for a child’s best interests, already conduct independent investigations.
“It’s a great idea, but I am not supportive of putting resources towards a new government position when we have programs now that are not fully funded,” Concannon said.
Fonkert said CASA volunteers and guardians ad litem handle a limited number of kids on an individual basis, but the new advocate would allow anybody in the system to make complaints and would be able to effectively and objectively investigate the complaints.
The office would be modeled after a similar program in Missouri, which operates independently from state child welfare agencies. In Kansas, the proposed agency’s leading advocate would be appointed by the governor and the chief justice of the Kansas Supreme Court with approval from the Kansas Senate.
In 2019, the state Division of the Budget estimated the agency would cost around $766,064 a year, mostly for staff.
Kansas Rep. Jarrod Ousley, a Merriam Democrat who is on the foster care oversight committee, has been the key legislative backer of the proposal. Legislative oversight by committees aren’t enough to hold the foster care system accountable, Ousley said.
“Do you want a bunch of partisan politicians voting upon whether or not we have a review of a system taking care of our kids? Or would you rather have someone charged with advocating for our kids, jointly appointed,” Ousley said. “I’m of the latter opinion.”
Republican Sen. Molly Baumgardner of Louisburg, who is vice chairwoman of the oversight committee, also supports the proposal. She said Kansas needs a point person who can identify problems within Kansas’ foster care system, give direct feedback to the Legislature and be accountable to the public.
Andy Tsubasa Field is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.