Government & Politics

‘A bitter pill to swallow’: Kansas lawmakers drop child welfare oversight plan

Concerns remain over Kansas foster children staying in offices

(File video -- 2018) Lawmakers learned last fall that because of a shortage of foster homes and residential beds, contractors had resorted to having kids — many of them with extreme needs and hard to place — sleep in offices overnight when needed.
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(File video -- 2018) Lawmakers learned last fall that because of a shortage of foster homes and residential beds, contractors had resorted to having kids — many of them with extreme needs and hard to place — sleep in offices overnight when needed.

Despite the problems facing Kansas foster care, lawmakers in the final hours of their annual session dropped a plan to hold the troubled system accountable.

A provision creating a child welfare oversight committee was eliminated from the state budget, a last-minute casualty of the legislative battle over Medicaid expansion. If approved, the panel could have summoned officials to explain problems, drafted legislation and provided frustrated parents with a place to vent.

Some advocates saw the panel as their last, best hope to make progress after a year that began with high expectations but ended in disappointment.

“I don’t think our legislators understand how hard it is to apologize to a child for ‘good intentions’ gone bad,” said Tara Wallace, president of the African American Foster Care/Adoption Coalition’s Topeka chapter. “It’s a bitter pill to swallow but I have to for the sake of helping them get through their traumatic experiences.”

Added Benet Magnuson, executive director of Kansas Appleseed, a nonprofit justice center serving vulnerable and excluded Kansans: “I think it’s clear for the legislative leadership that foster care is not a priority.”

The committee would have been required to review data on child maltreatment, child welfare programs and concerns about the Department for Children and Families, which oversees foster care. Lawmakers focused on health and child-related issues would have been assigned to serve on it.

Kansas’ child welfare system has been under stress for years. Child deaths, problems recruiting and retaining staff and dozens of children missing from foster care have all added to a sense of crisis.

On Friday, the House debated a budget plan that would have formed the committee. But a coalition of Republicans and Democrats blocked the legislation to try to pressure Republican leaders in the Senate to hold a vote on Medicaid expansion.

Lawmakers sent the budget back for more negotiations between the House and the Senate. Negotiators produced a new version that didn’t include the committee.

The Legislature then passed the budget Saturday night after pro-expansion Republicans stopped voting to block it.

Rep. Susan Concannon, a Beloit Republican who chairs the House Children and Seniors Committee, had originally voted to block the budget over expansion. She had also introduced a bill in March to create the child welfare oversight committee.

Concannon said she was told the decision to drop the committee from the budget wasn’t targeted at her, but noted that she had been the one trying to get it into the bill.

“So I would assume that that’s why it was taken out,” Concannon said.

Rep. Troy Waymaster, a Bunker Hill Republican who chairs the House budget committee, said when the budget bill was considered in his committee, it would have created a task force with limited duties. But lawmakers were also looking at another option — Concannon’s bill.

Later, when the House and Senate were negotiating over the budget, the bill was changed to create a committee instead of a task force.

After the budget was sent back for more work Friday, negotiators decided to strip out the provision, he said, and not have either a task force or a committee.

“Just because there was varying language and we just had that omitted from the budget bill,” Waymaster said.

Some lawmakers have said Waymaster and other Republicans removed that and other provisions in retaliation for not accepting the budget. Waymaster rejected the idea, saying he had told lawmakers that the budget would change if it was sent back.

Regardless of why the provision was dropped, the decision was another disappointment to child advocates.

Last month, lawmakers received a letter from frustrated members of the child welfare task force urging the Legislature to do more this session to help foster children. The task force—which came up with a long list of recommendations to improve the system—formed in 2017.

The panel’s examination of the system resulted in revelations about children missing from foster care, poor technology, children sleeping in offices and high staff turnover. In their final report, the task force urged lawmakers to provide additional funding for child welfare workers and improve data sharing.

“We are now two years after the legislature itself formed this task force,” Magnuson said. “Was it all just window dressing and a waste of time?”

The budget does include additional funding for DCF. The agency will receive millions to hire dozens of child welfare staff.

Concannon noted that lawmakers can still act next year on her bill to create a child welfare oversight committee.

“It needs oversight. We need to get this bill passed,” Concannon said.

For Wallace, this latest slight from Topeka is disappointing. Especially when children in the system are hurting now.

Changes were needed this session, she said.

”Kansas families no longer have years, we have minutes, hours, even days before the damage becomes life altering.”

Bauer reported from Kansas City.

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Jonathan Shorman covers Kansas politics and the Legislature for The Wichita Eagle and The Kansas City Star. He’s been covering politics for six years, first in Missouri and now in Kansas. He holds a journalism degree from the University of Kansas.
Laura Bauer came to The Star in 2005 after spending much of her life in southwest Missouri. She’s a member of the investigative team focusing on watchdog journalism. In her 25-year career, Laura’s stories on child welfare, human trafficking, crime and Kansas secrecy have been nationally recognized.