Government & Politics

New bill would alert Kansas lawmakers when a child in foster care goes missing

A bill introduced in the Kansas Senate would require the Department for Children and Families (DCF) to notify the legislature, the governor, and the media when one of the state’s 7,300 foster children goes missing or has to spend the night in an office.

Reports of missing children, kids sleeping in offices and abuse have plagued the Kansas child welfare system for years. In May 2018, a 14-year-old reported she was raped while staying at a KVC office in Olathe.

A bill sponsored by Louisburg Republican Sen. Molly Baumgardner would impose a $500 fine for each day a contractor does not inform DCF of a missing child.

“We can’t address missing kids and we can’t address the problems that are occurring when children spend the night in offices if we don’t even know that it’s happening,” Baumgardner said at a hearing Thursday morning before the Senate Committee on Public Health and Welfare.

A vote has yet to be scheduled.

Under current policy, Kansas foster care contractors, which include KVC and St. Francis, must notify DCF as soon as a child is missing. DCF then contacts law enforcement and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. The department has two full-time investigators that handle missing children cases.

Eighty-four children are either runaways or classified as missing, according to state officials.

Newly-appointed DCF Secretary Laura Howard has voiced her support for a more transparent system. But Baumgardner said it’s about changing a culture of concealment.

“It really doesn’t matter who is sitting in the governor’s seat. It doesn’t matter who is sitting in the secretary of DCF’s seat,” she said. “We have a culture because we have a large group of employees that don’t change with elections, and the culture is ‘we’re not going to report.’”

DFC initially opposed the bill, saying it could lose more than $55 million in federal funding if it released names of missing children. Rebekah Gaston, director of policy for DCF, said the department’s main concern is confidentiality.

“We don’t oppose notification when it limits the notification to aggregate information or just the basics like age and gender,” she said.

If the bill were amended to ensure confidentiality, DCF would support sharing updates about missing children, according to spokesman Mike Deines.

“We are always looking for ways to be as transparent as possible. Secretary [Laura Howard] does receive daily updates on the missing and runaway children so we’ll provide that information, particularly in the aggregate,” he said. “Our concern is the confidentiality of the children and the families and that has an affect on federal funds.”

“I don’t think that we should be afraid of facts,” Baumgardner said. “I think what we should focus on is that these are our most vulnerable children and we need to make decisions based on facts, not just blanket statements. That’s not good enough for each individual child.”

Gov. Laura Kelly’s administration is pushing for changes in the child welfare system. After The Star reported about one troubled Florida company’s path to no-bid grants, Kelly cut ties with the firm and re-opened the bidding process.

“Governor Kelly has been an advocate for children her entire career. She was the first lawmaker to sound the alarm in the fall of 2017 when children were missing from foster care,” said spokeswoman Ashley All. “She has made increasing transparency in DCF — and other state agencies — a top priority.”

The bill requires DCF to publish information about a child in the county where he or she was reported missing, using the newspaper that carries legal notices. Baumgardner suggested the bill could be amended to simply informing newspapers instead of buying costly space.

Emily Bradbury, executive director of the Kansas Press Association, said the organization supports the bill.

“One missing child is too many. If we can play a small part in the quick recovery of a missing child, it is our honor to do so,” she said in a statement.

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Lara Korte helps cover Kansas politics for the Kansas City Star. She is a senior at the University of Kansas majoring in journalism and political science.