Politics & Government

Lawmakers approve creating child welfare task force

The creation of a task force to improve Kansas’ child welfare system now rests with Gov. Sam Brownback.

The House approved Senate Bill 126 on Friday, 110-5. The Senate approved it a few hours later, 33-6.

The task force legislation comes in the wake of audit reports issued over the past year critical of the state’s privatized foster care system. Lawmakers have been pushing for a group to perform both a top-to-bottom review of foster care and recommend changes.

“There are extensive problems throughout the child welfare system and those necessitate taking a deep look into how things are handled in the system and what can be done to make it better,” said Rep. Linda Gallagher, R-Lenexa.

An audit last summer concluded the Kansas Department for Children and Families, the agency that oversees foster care, 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.

Since then, the department has rolled out a number of changes, including annual background checks and requiring child placing agencies to assess the safety of homes during visits.

The agency has promised other changes in the future, including that all annual inspections of foster care homes will be done by department staff by this summer. Previously, they were done by the contractors, which some contended posed a conflict of interest.

The task force would be charged with examining the level of oversight and supervision that the Department for Children and Families exercises over its contractors who provide foster care and adoption services. It would also seek to determine what is contributing to the rising number of children in the child welfare system and licensing standards for case managers.

Some senators voiced concern that the bill had not been thoroughly vetted by the Senate. The House passed the bill last month, but the Senate had not considered similar legislation until Friday.

Sen. Julia Lynn, R-Olathe, said she hopes the task force produces something “concrete.”

“I would hope we never have to bring a task force like this together again on the issue of child welfare so these agencies and departments can do their jobs effectively,” Lynn said.

The group would be required to submit a preliminary report to the Legislature by January and a final report a year later.

The task force would be composed of lawmakers and individuals involved in the child welfare system, such as a family law attorney, law enforcement and social worker.

“This is desperately needed,” Rep. Jarrod Ousley, D-Merriam, said.

Rep. Jene Vickrey, R-Louisburg, voted against the bill.

He said he’s hopeful the foster care task force is effective, but described his vote as a “reverse protest.”

“I have, for many years, believed that we should pull back the privatization of foster care, retool the whole system and fix it,” Vickrey said. “I would love for this task force to be meaningful, effective and do work that’s not just sat on a shelf somewhere and ignored.”

Jonathan Shorman: 785-296-3006, @jonshorman