Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly creates child advocate office through executive order, circumventing divided Senate

Jason Tidd
Topeka Capital-Journal
Surrounded by members of the Kansas legislation and child care advocates, Gov. Laura Kelly signs executive order 21-28 establishing the Division of the Child Advocate Monday afternoon at the Kansas Children’s Discovery Center.

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly on Monday signed an executive order to create a child advocate office, circumventing a divided Legislature in what she called "a true victory for Kansas kids and families."

The independent Division of the Child Advocate will be focused on child welfare oversight, investigate complaints from families, recommend structural changes, help people navigate the child welfare system and expand coordination among interested groups.

"This person can access files, records, all of those kinds of things, that frustrated, quite honestly, legislators for years," Kelly said. "So this position, will be allowed to get that kind of information or have access to information that cannot be made available to the general public, or even in some cases to the legislators, but this office will have that authority."

She hasn't appointed anyone to the position.

The Kansas Appleseed Center for Law and Justice has been pushing for the creation of a child advocate.

"Kansas children and families now have a place to turn to that they can count on for robust oversight and accountability for our state's foster care system," Kansas Appleseed executive director Jami Reever said in a statement.

Reever said the advocate will be "the transparent and truly independent watchdog our kids, families, social workers, and communities need."

"There will be no coverup," Kelly said of the advocates.

She said the advocate's office is structure in a way to give it independence from the governor. While she will appoint the officeholders, they will serve for set terms instead of at the pleasure of the governor. Neither she nor the Legislature can fire the appointees.

"There's a runway for this person to operate and get some things done," Kelly said. "This is about as independent as you can possibly get without it being a private entity."

By creating the office through executive order, a future governor could undo Kelly's work. The Democrat said she has "no doubt" the Republican-controlled Legislature will work toward "a way that we can actually cement this in statute, so that it is not subject to any political pressure or bias."

"I think this is a good solution," Senate Minority Leader Dinah Sykes, D-Lenexa, said of the governor's action.

Sykes said she hopes the office "gets to work and shows some success" before the next legislative session. Doing so could help build further bipartisan support behind putting the office into statute.

Legislative politics delayed action

After years of debate, Kansas legislators and child welfare advocates tried to form an independent oversight body last session.

"As often happens, however, during the legislative process, reaching consensus was difficult and time ran out," Kelly said. "Knowing how important this child advocate position is, I directed my team to explore every possible solution to get this done."

More:Families grappling with foster care system call on Kansas legislators to increase transparency

A House committee unanimously passed HB 2345, but that bill died without consideration before the full House. A new proposal in the Senate made some key changes that many of the House bill supporters opposed, in particular putting the advocate's office under the attorney general instead of the Legislature.

Attorney General Derek Schmidt, a Republican running for governor, is Kelly's main political rival going into the 2022 election season.

Kelly said her administration drafted the order "with a bipartisan group of legislators and stakeholders."

Rep. Jarrod Ousley, D-Merriam, said he was glad to see "the governor taking charge and putting the kids first." He is the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Children and Seniors, which introduced the original bill.

"I'd like to have seen House Bill 2345 being signed into law right here today," Ousley said. "But if leadership is going to play politics with it and let a bipartisan House bill, never get a vote on the floor that came out of committee unanimously. I'm glad to see the governor taking the reins."

More:Political concerns divide Kansas legislators on retooled proposal to oversee foster care system

Ousley said "we'll see what happens" with potential legislative action next session, but "right now at this moment, I'm feeling accomplished and satisfied."

Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover, said in a statement that a child advocate position is needed but questioned its independence from the governor.

"Though I appreciate the governor following the Senate's lead on recognizing the need for an Office of Child Advocate, it is important that the office be independent and provide real oversight," Masterson said. "This past session, the Senate adopted S Sub for HB 2153 on a bi-partisan vote of 31-4, which created a true independent Office of Child Advocate that would bring accountability and transparency to the child welfare system in Kansas. This is the more appropriate course and one we will continue to pursue next session."

That bill never made it through the House either.

Legislators did pass and the governor signed HB 2158, establishing the Joint Committee on Child Welfare System Oversight.

Fixing the 'broken foster care system'

Before she was elected governor, Kelly was a senator who served on a child welfare task force that took a "deep dive" at the child welfare and foster care systems.

"What we found was shameful," she said. "Kids were unnecessarily entering the system because the budget for the Department of Children and Families had been smashed, resulting in near elimination of the family preservation division. Children were stuck in the system because we didn't have the resources on the other end to reintegrate them with their biological family or an adoptive family.

"When I became governor, fixing this mess was a fairly high priority."

In addition to a change in leadership, the agency added dozens of new caseworkers, transitioned to new case management contracts and "eliminated barriers" to access. Kelly said the administration has improved performance, including reducing the demand for foster care and increasing the stability for children in the system.

"Our efforts to fix the broken foster care system are making a real difference," she said.

The Division of the Child Advocate was created in conjunction with a second executive order establishing the Office of Public Advocates, which will house the new child advocate division and the existing long-term care and KanCare ombudsmans. The signing ceremony took place Monday afternoon at the Kansas Children's Discovery Center in Topeka.

"The office will be dedicated to assisting Kansans as they navigate some of our most complex and confusing social systems, our long term care system and KanCare — our Medicaid program," Kelly said.

She called the new advocate division "another significant step forward in those efforts and action to make certain that we never again let our child welfare services fail our children so badly."