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Kansas bill would create new office to oversee embattled Department for Children and Families

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Posted at 4:00 AM, Feb 17, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-17 09:46:33-05

TOPEKA, Kan. — A new Kansas state office, which would be tasked with overseeing the Department For Children and Families among other things, could be created soon.

On Wednesday, lawmakers will meet in Topeka to discuss House Bill 2187, which would create an Office of the Child Advocate — also known as a children's ombudsman office — if passed.

Rep. Jarrod Ousley, a Democrat from Merriam who represents District 24, first introduced the bill in 2019.

"We need somebody in there to make sure that their (children's) safety and well-being is in the best interest at all times," Ousley said.

The office would be independent from the Department of Children and Families, or DCF, and could investigate complaints about the agency as well as encourage policy changes.

The discussion about creating the office began in 2017 after the I-Team exposed several cases where children in Kansas died from abuse even though DCF had some level of involvement with the families.

In some cases, DCF was accused of not following up on hotline calls.

Currently, there is no office to ensure DCF is doing its job appropriately.

"It just makes sense to have somebody outside the agency looking after the complaint department," Ousley said. "Not every kid has an advocate, but every kid deserves that."

Kansas would join 13 other states, including Missouri, in implementing an independent Office of the Child Advocate if the bill passes.

Judy Conway, the grandmother of Adrian Jones, 7, who was killed by his dad and stepmom in Wyandotte County, is a proponent of additional oversight.

"It's another set of eyes on these kids," Conway said. "We need that."

Adrian's file with DCF is more than 2,000 pages long. Social workers documented years of abuse, but it remains unclear why the agency failed to remove Adrian from his dad and stepmom's care.

Michael Jones, the boy's father, and Heather Jones, his stepmom, are both in prison for Adrian's murder.

According to Ousley, the new office, if created, could investigate situations like Adrian's in the event there's reason to believe DCF isn't conducting a proper investigation.

Adrian's parents moved between Kansas and Missouri, which made it difficult for authorities to investigate. However, it doesn't appear that DCF and social services in Missouri communicated about Adrian's whereabouts.

Ousley said the ombudsman in Missouri wants to work directly with the office in Kansas to track high-risk situations.

"In a situation like Adrian Jones, had there been communication, it very well may have been lifesaving," Ousley said.

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly has often criticized DCF's handling of child abuse cases. While Kelly didn't respond to a request from the I-Team for this story, she said in 2018 that DCF needed more oversight.

"I think an ombudsman needs to be in there," Kelly said at the time.

According to Ousley, the office would be made up of six full-time staff members, each receiving a salary of about $120,000. Ousley said the costs would be offset by a reduction of children in state custody as a result.

Ousley said the bill has bipartisan support.

"Child welfare is no place for partisanship," Ousley said. "These kids don’t have a party affiliation."

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