TOPEKA, Kansas — Republicans complain that Democratic Governor Laura Kelly sidestepped them to create the fledgling Division of the Child Advocate while the Legislature still considered the idea.
Kelly issued an executive order this week to form the agency — but only after bills in the House and Senate got shot down early this year that would have created a similar office.
The division will compile and review complaints, monitor foster care agencies and help families in the child welfare system. Adding more oversight into the foster care system has bipartisan support, but Sen. Richard Hilderbrand, a Galena Republican, said Kelly delivered a “slap in the face” to the legislative process.
“I have never been a fan of pen-and-paper legislation by edict,” he said at a meeting of the Legislature’s Child Welfare Oversight committee. “There’s a legislative process for a reason.”
Sen. Molly Baumgardner, a Louisburg Republican, said the new division lacks transparency and doesn’t make any meaningful changes to how the state responds to complaints in the foster care system. She is also concerned the order doesn’t guarantee confidentiality to anyone making a complaint.
“I know we need this office,” said Rep. Charlotte Esau, an Olathe Republican. “We’ve heard the reasons for it. But an executive order, especially in the timing that it had, simply doesn’t ring true to me that this is intended just as a fix. It seemed more political.”
The division is part of the Office of Public Advocates, which is housed in the Department of Administration. Under the executive order, the governor would appoint the division leader to a five-year term.
Establishing a child advocate position had been a priority of lawmakers for years, Kelly said, and her administration began creating the order after “knowing how important this child advocate position is.”
Republicans wanted the Legislature more involved in the appointment process, and the bills in the House and Senate both had different methods of selecting the division’s leader than the governor’s edict.
Kelly said the division is independent. It won’t report to the Department of Administration and is fully separate from the Department for Children and Families. Kansas is the 14th state to have an independent agency monitoring child welfare. She said the new division will further protect children in foster care and boasted about the reduced number of children needing foster care during her term.
Democrats agreed with Kelly and said something needed to be done to protect children.
“Can we take some joy in the fact that what has been established will help save lives of children?” said Sen. Cindy Holscher, an Overland Park Democrat. “We’ve been waiting, the kids have been waiting, advocates have been waiting for years for something like this to be established.”
But because the division was created through an executive order, future governors could remove it completely. Both chambers considered bills and could bring them back up next year.
Senate President Ty Masterson told the Kansas City Star he is still working to pass a bill, and the Child Welfare Oversight committee could create legislation or issue recommendations for the new division.
Kelly knows that is possible.
“I have no doubt that my colleagues in the Legislature are thinking very seriously about that,” she said. “We’ll be working together to see if there’s a way we can actually submit this in statute so that it is not subject to any political pressure or bias.”
Blaise Mesa reports on criminal justice and social services for the Kansas News Service in Topeka. You can follow him on Twitter @Blaise_Mesa. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of Kansas Public Radio, KCUR, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.