TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — A House committee on Monday approved a bill that would create an independent agency to oversee Kansas' foster care system.
The House Children and Seniors Committee advanced the bill creating the 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.
The move came after Rep. Jarrod Ousley, a Merriam Democrat and the bill's chief proponent, compromised with some Republican lawmakers and agreed to have the proposed agency report to the Legislature instead of the Department of Administration — an executive branch agency under Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly.
In a hearing last week, DCF Deputy Secretary Tanya Keys told lawmakers that the agency supports the creation of the Office of the Child Advocate, but has "serious concerns" with the Legislature directing it, instead of the Department of Administration. Out of 22 states with child advocates, only Nebraska's official reports to the Legislature, Keys told lawmakers.
"The majority of offices in other states are housed outside of the legislative branch because doing so eases the logistical burdens of the office's operations while still allowing for independent oversight," Keys said in a written testimony. She also said state executive agencies often exchange information and coordinate together.
But Rep. Susan Concannon, of Beloit, told the Associated Press that having the proposed agency directed by legislators would allow it to have more appropriate oversight over child welfare agencies, including the state Department for Children and Families.
"We're the ones who have the responsibility of questioning the administration and making sure that the programs are run appropriately," Concannon said.
Concannon told the AP last year that the agency was unnecessary because 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. She cited a 2018 report from a Judicial Council advisory committee that came to a similar conclusion.
But Concannon said that her views changed after she was contacted by dozens of volunteers and foster parents. She is now a co-sponsor of the bill. In Kansas, Guardians ad litem are overburdened and CASA workers are understaffed, she said.
The bill now goes to the full House for a vote.
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.