Politics & Government

Kansas foster care system could see changes

Speaker of House Ron Ryckman address the Kansas House of Representatives after afternoon being elected Speaker of the House (Jan. 9, 2017).
Speaker of House Ron Ryckman address the Kansas House of Representatives after afternoon being elected Speaker of the House (Jan. 9, 2017). The Wichita Eagle

A task force would develop potential changes to the Kansas foster care system – which was faulted in a critical state audit – and make recommendations to lawmakers under a bill advanced by a House panel on Tuesday.

The task force, made up of both lawmakers and those with first-hand experience in foster care, would report to the Legislature by January. The group’s recommendations would set the scene for debates over changes to foster care later in 2018.

The House Children and Seniors Committee unanimously approved a bill establishing the task force, which Rep. Linda Gallagher, R-Lenexa, the committee’s vice chairwoman, described as the panel’s “signature” bill for the year.

The hope is that the task force can move beyond identifying problems within the foster care system to proposing solutions, lawmakers on the committee said.

“We don’t want this to be another group to issue yet another study to go on the shelf,” Gallagher said.

A state audit last summer concluded the Kansas Department for Children and Families, which oversees the state’s privatized foster care system, failed to ensure the safety of children in the system.

The DCF failed to conduct background checks on foster families, some foster homes had inadequate sleeping space for children, and monthly in-person visits to foster homes did not always take place.

Additionally, auditors found that the DCF failed to investigate allegations of abuse or neglect called in to the Kansas Protection Report Center in five of 40 cases reviewed.

The task force would study the audit but also gather its own information as it crafts recommendations.

“I’ve heard enough to know we need to act,” said Rep. Jarrod Ousley, the committee’s ranking Democrat.

In a statement, the DCF said it has one of the safest child welfare systems in the country, according to reviews by federal partners.

“The Kansas Department for Children and Families has made substantial progress in addressing concerns raised by Legislative Post Audit, and we continue to improve upon our already safe system,” said agency spokeswoman Theresa Freed.

In testimony to the committee last week, the DCF said it was neutral on the proposal to create a task force. The agency suggested a status report on the foster care system could be submitted to the House committee as a substitute for a task force.

“Additional oversight beyond this, in line with what (the bill) proposed, may be manageable under the current DCF budget,” DCF attorney Kathy Armstrong told lawmakers in written remarks. “However, staff time for agency employees who are currently engaged in protecting children would be impacted. This may not be the most efficient form of oversight.”

With Tuesday’s committee vote, the bill now heads to the House floor. The committee used a procedural maneuver that could allow the Legislature to more quickly pass the bill – a sign that lawmakers are aiming to move swiftly as taxes and budget debates continue to dominate the session.

Jonathan Shorman: 785-296-3006, @jonshorman