Government & Politics

Kansas passes bill to open state secrets on child deaths, police shootings

Child advocates and legislators are growing frustrated that the Legislature has not approved many changes to the Kansas child welfare system.
Child advocates and legislators are growing frustrated that the Legislature has not approved many changes to the Kansas child welfare system. File photo

With just a few days left in the session, the Kansas Legislature passed a major transparency bill Tuesday that will provide the public with more information after child tragedies and police shootings.

The measures moved separately through the process in the past several months, but in the end were put together in one proposal, Senate Bill 336. That bill passed the House unanimously on Monday and then sailed through the Senate, 40-0 on Tuesday. It has been sent to Gov. Jeff Colyer for his signature.

One part of the legislation requires the Kansas Department for Children and Families to release information after a child dies of abuse or neglect. The other part allows family members to see police body camera footage within 20 days after a request is made.

"I'm very surprised that we were able to obtain this much disclosure from DCF, particularly this year," said Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita, who was "exceedingly pleased" after the bill passed the Legislature.

Added Sen. David Haley, D-Kansas City, Kan.: "This is a combination of very good measures that do provide greater sunshine."

Both issues were highlighted in The Star's November series, "Why so secret, Kansas?" In the months-long investigation into the secrecy that permeates Kansas government, The Star found that the state had one of the most restrictive body camera laws in the nation. It also revealed a pervasive effort inside DCF to avoid transparency, hiding behind privacy laws and internal procedures — even instructing employees to shred notes taken in meetings where the death of a child was discussed.

The session began in January with lawmakers quickly introducing bills on DCF, body cameras and other transparency issues.

The state's child welfare agency has been under scrutiny for more than two years after high-profile deaths of children across Kansas and the revelations of children sleeping in offices and kids missing from foster care. The Star and other news outlets across the state have fought for years to obtain records and information after several horrific child deaths, including the 2015 death of Adrian Jones, a Kansas City, Kan., boy whose body was fed to pigs.

Frustrated lawmakers, as well as child advocates across the state, have said more must be known about these cases so the system can improve and other children are protected.

Since Secretary Gina Meier-Hummel took over the troubled agency in early December, she has vowed to be more transparent. She worked with lawmakers on the bill and she and Colyer have been pushing for its passage.

The measure requires DCF to release within seven business days the age and sex of the child, date of the fatality, a summary of previous reports to the agency and findings, as well as any department-recommended services provided.

Also, if a child dies while in state custody, the bill requires the DCF secretary to release the age and sex of the child, date of the fatality and summary of the facts surrounding the death. This section relates directly to children who die in foster care and the death is ruled an accident.

On Tuesday, lawmakers applauded the progress.

"When we say that we care about all kids then we need to make sure that we have that check and balance in place when something does go terribly wrong with regard to our children," Sen. Molly Baumgardner, R-Louisburg, said. "I think it's very crucial that we make sure that information is made public for any fatality that occurs with a child, whether they are receiving services from the state or not, and that's where we find out how to improve best practices."

Colyer agreed: "Kansans should quickly have access to this information following these unthinkable tragedies."

Meier-Hummel said when a child dies the agency reviews the case and history with the family.

"Toward the goals of transparency and accountability, it’s also important that the public and those affected are made aware of the agency’s involvement and response to protect these innocent victims," she said.

The police body camera section of the measure isn't as strong as some had wanted. It requires the release of footage to the families, but language requiring the public release of footage was removed earlier in the legislative process.

Currently, footage is classified as an investigative record and not subject to mandatory disclosure under the Kansas Open Records Act. While family members may eventually see what was captured on camera, the public may never have that opportunity.

"This was a start, but it's not all that needs to be done for transparency," Barbara Bollier, R-Mission Hills, said of Tuesday's vote. "We all need to still press forward and make sure that information is available to people that need to know."

Caleb was 10 when his mother killed him in his sleep. Caleb's father Clint Blansett still can’t believe that a Kansas Department for Children and Families social worker showed up at his door before his son’s memorial service to make sure he didn’t