Kansas must take a stand and demand answers from the Trump administration on behalf of the immigrant children living in Topeka.
Child welfare has historically been a state issue. Immigration is a federal responsibility.
But by separating children from their asylum-seeking parents, the Trump administration has thrust states into the immigration debate, whether Gov. Jeff Colyer likes it or not.
The children who crossed our southern border and then were shipped to a Topeka nonprofit are living on Kansas soil. They now are our responsibility, and Kansas must ensure their health and well-being and push for a swift reunification with their parents.
So far, the governor's office has released limited information about the 44 children who were living at The Villages as of Friday. The Topeka nonprofit was established 50 years ago to help abused and neglected children and has accepted federal contracts worth $5.8 million to work with the unaccompanied children..
Nine of those children are under the age of 12 and were taken from their parents under the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy.
"This is a unique scenario," said Rep. Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat who was briefed on some details after the governor asked the Department for Children and Families to inspect The Villages. "But once you place them, state law then controls."
Ward is correct in his assessment. He's been sounding alarm bells along with other concerned state legislators.
Colyer's office and DCF are taking too many cues from President Donald Trump, shifting responsibility back to federal officials.
"While DCF licenses The Villages facilities, our agency has no direct oversight of the federal government’s contract with The Villages, which started in February 2017," read a statement released Monday. "Further questions should be directed to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) or The Villages."
Well Governor, that office isn't responding. Media inquiries have gone unanswered for weeks.
And as Colyer’s office has discovered, the federal government has rebuffed even Republican governors with close ties to the administration.
State officials must press even harder for information and transparency. When the health and safety of children are at stake, partisan loyalties must be set aside. Everyone must align for the sake of the children.
The Trump administration orchestrated this dangerous information vacuum, repeatedly asserting that it is not obligated to answer seemingly to anyone.
Unknown is how many children have already passed through The Villages. What is the process for reuniting them with relatives or their parents? And more must be shared about how their educational, medical and therapy needs are being met.
Colyer and DCF have merely said that The Villages assured state officials that all is well.
But without specifics that are open to public scrutiny, that’s not very reassuring.
For example, are the children able to regularly speak with their parents by phone? And does The Villages have staff fluent in the children's native languages? Some might speak lesser-known native dialects.
On Wednesday, DCF Secretary Gina Meier-Hummel plans to meet with several state legislators, including Ward, as well as Sylvia Crawford, executive director of The Villages.
Ward is hopeful that Jeff Kahrs, regional director of Health and Human Services will also attend. The Office of Refugee Resettlement, which oversees the unaccompanied minors program, falls under HHS. Colyer expected to speak with a deputy secretary of the Office of Refugee Resettlement Tuesday afternoon.
All these officials will be instrumental in ensuring that the children are cared for appropriately and are returned to the security of their own families as quickly as possible.
Until those reunions can occur, they are our children, and Kansas officials must care for them as they would their own.