Kansas might soon create more oversight of foster care and abuse cases with child advocate office • Kansas Reflector – Kansas Reflector

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TOPEKA — Following a years-long clash over who should oversee the state’s child welfare system — a battle that took on new urgency with the death of a Topeka 5-year-old in October — lawmakers sent a bill creating an independent office to the governor. 

Senate Bill 115 would establish the Office of the Child Advocate as a independent state agency. Gov. Laura Kelly first created the Division of the Child Advocate under executive order as a stopgap measure for the overburdened foster care system in October 2021, after the House and Senate couldn’t agree on a proposed office. 

The move led to friction with legislators who voiced concerns over independence and oversight issues related to having the office under the governor. By establishing the office in statute, future governors wouldn’t be able to eliminate the office through executive order. Legislative attempts to create the office in 2022 and 2023 failed during chamber negotiations. 

“This bill has had a long history,” said Rep. Susan Concannon, R-Beloit and chairwoman of a legislative child welfare oversight committee, during an April 4 House discussion of the bill. “We started conferencing on this last year. Things kind of fell apart. So we resumed this year and had some good negotiations.” 

Under the bill, which passed 117-3 in the House and 36-3 in the Senate, no governmental agency could exercise control or supervision over the office or the person selected to be the state’s child advocate. Kelly is likely to approve the measure. The child advocate would be appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate, and would be chosen “without regard to political affiliation and on the basis of integrity and capacity for effectively carrying out the duties of the OCA.”

The office would receive, investigate and resolve child welfare system complaints and provide oversight of the system, with the overarching goal of improving the safety and well-being of Kansas children in the state’s flawed foster care system.

In June of 2022, a federal watchdog agency found that Kansas had one of the highest rates of missing foster children from July 1, 2018, to Dec. 31, 2020. A 2022 study from the Center for the Study of Social Policy found that 53 foster children slept in offices 167 times in 2021, and that only 65% of foster children were able to get the mental health services they needed. In 2022, a second report found 85 foster children had spent 257 nights in offices in 2022.

Between 2019 to 2021, 392 out of 1,074 child fatalities reviewed by the board had history with the Kansas Department for Children and Families’ child protective services, according to the annual death review report, with scenarios where children were held in state custody, had siblings removed from the home, or had open child protective services cases. 

The oversight debate took on new life in October when the case of Zoey Felix, the Topeka 5-year-old girl who died of sexual assault, became widely publicized. The state’s child welfare agency received nine reports asking for someone to look into her case before her death.

At the time, Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover, and House Speaker Dan Hawkins, R-Wichita, said Felix’s death showed the need for an independent Office of Child Advocate. 

“This young child’s tragic death could have been prevented had the agency and this administration done their jobs,” they said in a joint statement.  

Since Felix was never in state custody, it is unclear if the state had the authority to become involved in her case in 2023. Provisions in the new bill, such as allowing the office to have access to written reports of child abuse and neglect when complaints over a child’s treatment come in, could potentially grant the office more jurisdiction. 

Sen. Ethan Corson, D-Prairie Village, said the bill marked progress.  

“This is an issue that people were talking to me about since well before I got elected, and I’ve been here for four years,” Corson said. “I just wanted to pause and say that I think this is a very significant piece of legislation. I think we should all be proud of it.” 

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