TOPEKA, Kansas — A young state agency created to make sure the state looks after the children put in its care has 69 open investigations manned by a staff of five people.
In one of the just seven cases that the Division of the Child Advocate has closed, it concluded that state officials met with a child too little and tried to move them to a new home weeks after major brain surgery.
Governor Laura Kelly both created the special ombudsman's office and, as the state’s chief executive, she’s ultimately responsible for the state’s foster care system. Child advocate Kerrie Lonard told lawmakers on Tuesday that the office has had a hectic start.
“These first couple of months,” she said, “it does not feel sustainable.”
Lonard expects things to run smoother as her office fine-tunes its processes.
The Kansas News Service obtained a report the advocate’s office filed overlooking how the Department for Children and Families, and the private contractors it relies on to arrange foster care, handled the case of the child who underwent brain surgery.
In that report, investigators concluded that caseworkers filed inaccurate court documents, failed to meet with the child often enough — sometimes going a full month without seeing the child in person — and started efforts to move the child during recuperation from the brain surgery.
Lonard said the findings her office makes in each case will get released to the public when her office files its annual report, something mandated by an executive order Kelly signed last year.
The office sprung up through that order to monitor the state’s troubled child care system. Lonard said foster parents go to her office because they already complained to the foster agencies without result. Or, she said, parents fear retaliation if they file a complaint. Multiple parents have made similar complaints to the Kansas News Service.
The division of the child advocate fields complaints from foster families, children, lawmakers, mandated reporters or anyone else in child welfare. The office cannot undo court decisions, interfere with those cases or change the outcomes of a case. But Lonard said her office does have the teeth to make changes and said agencies have been responsive and thoughtful to her findings.
There could be changes to the office in the future. Lawmakers tried to create their own office through legislation, but nothing was passed. It wasn’t until Kelly signed the executive order that the office was created.
“I have never been a fan of pen-and-paper legislation by edict,” said Sen. Richard Hilderbrand, a Galena Republican, last year when the order was signed. “There’s a legislative process for a reason.”
Bills pending in the Legislature would put the office under the Kansas Attorney General.
Lonard said that won’t make a difference in her work, but she wants to see the office added to state law. That means codifying what already exists because an executive order from a future governor could just as easily scrap the office. The idea of an independent child welfare investigator does have bipartisan support.
Lonard said her office is adequately supported by the Legislature, but she is always open to more case investigators.
The 69 open cases are currently split over five people in the division: Lonard; three case analysts; and an office administrator.
The office’s creation comes as Kansas has lost almost 500 foster families in the last few years. Lawmakers are clamoring for exit interviews to see why families are leaving — which could become the Child Advocate’s responsibility — but Sen. Molly Baumgardner, a Louisburg Republican, hopes Lonard and her team show parents there is a reason to stay licensed.
“(But) not if they don’t know about it,” she said. Baumgardner said the office needs to be marketed better.
“Foster parents weren’t even sure how they could file a complaint, or a grievance,” she said.
The child advocate can be contacted on its website, childadvocate.ks.gov.
Blaise Mesa reports on criminal justice and social services for the Kansas News Service in Topeka. 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.