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A Watchdog For Kansas' Child Welfare Agency? Not This Year

File photo
Kansas News Service
Rep. Jarrod Ousley, a Merriam Democrat, at a meeting of the Child Welfare System Task Force. Ousley has twice introduced a bill to establish independent oversight of the state child welfare agency, but is now pushing it to next year.

Twice, Rep. Jarrod Ousley introduced bills that would create a watchdog over the Kansas agency in charge of looking after children from troubled families.

It’s a massive department hounded by stories of overlooked abuse cases and foster children caught in punishing patterns of shifting from one temporary home to the next.

Ousley says he’s dropping the idea of a state child advocate. For now.

Instead, the Merriam Democrat wants to give the new Democratic administration a shot at reforming the Department for Children and Families before bringing in an outside office to look over its shoulder.

The office would have the power to review investigations and decisions made by the DCF, but it would be housed in the Department of Administration. That separation is key for child welfare advocates, who want to ensure DCF can’t retaliate against an advocate who turns up mistakes or wrongdoing.

The bill didn’t even make it to a floor vote last year. After reintroducing the idea this year, Ousley this week yanked it. Instead, he’ll revisit the proposal next year. The lawmaker said he wants to give Gov. Laura Kelly’s administration a year to get a handle on child welfare issues.

Ousley’s child advocate bill was sunk last year, in part, by DCF’s objection. He’s hoping to earn the support of the new governor and new head of DCF by giving them some time before setting up an outside advocate’s office. 

“I’d rather delay the year,” he said, “get it right, and get it moving forward without any obstruction than to risk getting nothing at all.”

Kelly made child welfare a central tenet of her campaign. She’s said fixing and increasing funding for DCF is a high priority for her first year in office.

Ousley said DCF doesn’t plan to oppose the bill, but that the governor wanted time to get settled and attack pressing child welfare problems first.

Kelly spokeswoman Ashley All didn’t say whether the governor favors setting up an advocate’s office, but did say the administration is prioritizing other issues, like adding social workers and funding foster care prevention.

“We must first stabilize this agency and the child welfare system before we can make other significant changes,” she said in an email.

But others are concerned about the harm that can be done in another year without that kind of oversight.

Judy Walsh strongly supports the bill, which she says could have helped protect her grandson, Adrian Jones. The boy died as a result of abuse in 2015 despite multiple reports to the state abuse hotline and several DCF investigations.

She said she’s been frustrated with the slow pace of change in the three years since Adrian’s death. She worries pushing this bill back a year is a sign that Kansas is losing momentum on policy changes in child welfare.

“I just worry that there’s going to be more children falling through the cracks,” Walsh said.

The cost to kids of waiting a year is Ousley’s biggest concern in pushing the bill to 2020.

“A year in a child’s life is a very long time,” he said.

Missouri has had an Office of the Child Advocate since 2002.

Missourians worried their abuse reports weren’t adequately investigated by the Department of Social Services, foster parents who think their knowledge is being ignored by their caseworker, or aunts questioning why their nephew was placed in a foster home when they had offered their open bed can call or email the office to have their concerns reviewed.

The Missouri Office of the Child Advocate exceeds goals in getting in touch with complainants and completing its investigations in a timely manner. In 2017, it contacted complainants within three business days 94 percent of the time. It wrapped up investigations within 45 business days 87 percent of the time.

In Kansas, where DCF has missed federal standards for timely handling of its cases, having an office without the baggage of a poor track record could be a boon for public trust.

“It’s an extra check and balance on the system that anybody, anybody can access,” said Lori Ross, president of the child welfare advocacy organization FosterAdopt Connect.

Ross said having an office that allows people to feel heard would also help Kansas with one of its particular challenges in foster care — retaining foster parents.

“That very basic level of, ‘Hey, I hear you have a concern, and it’s valid enough that I’m going to look into it and get back to you,’” said Ross, “that in itself is retention.”

Madeline Fox is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach her on Twitter @maddycfox.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

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