TOPEKA — Sen. Molly Baumgardner says the first call she received as an elected senator was about the foster care system in Kansas.
The Republican from Louisburg recalls reading newspaper reports before she was elected that detailed “horrific” neglect and abuse of Kansas children. Seven years later, those stories are still being reported.
“What bothers me the most,” she said, “is that most often there are adults that were fully aware of the dire circumstances of a child but chose to do nothing or their message was ignored.”
Baumgardner led the charge for passage of legislation that would form an office of the child advocate. Longtime supporters of the concept jeered her plan, which places the office directly under a politically ambitious attorney general ahead of an election year.
House leadership effectively killed competing legislation that won unanimous, bipartisan support from a committee dealing with foster care issues. Kansas Appleseed, which settled in January a class action lawsuit over instability in the foster care system, endorsed the House plan as an effective means of adding oversight to the system. It was hailed by families whose lives were impacted by the system’s failures.
Both plans would install a powerful investigator who could respond to complaints about the foster care system and make recommendations. The House plan called for the office and its 10 employees to report directly to the Legislature. The governor and chief justice of the Kansas Supreme Court would appoint the child advocate, with Senate approval, to a six-year term.
Baumgardner said she never paid attention to the House plan, which was developed over four years with wide-ranging input.
“This is the year we have to make it happen,” Baumgardner said. “It didn’t seem like there was movement coming out of the House. It didn’t really matter to me because I was working on a Senate version.”
The Senate plan includes formation of a joint oversight committee for foster care. The committee chair would forward three finalists for the child advocate to the attorney general, who would make a two-year appointment and oversee the office. Some Democrats and advocacy groups objected to the idea because it would give Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, who is running for governor in next year’s elections, unprecedented power to gather confidential information about how Gov. Laura Kelly’s administration has handled foster care issues.
Schmidt endorsed the idea. The Kelly administration proposed placing the office under her Department of Administration, an idea that failed to gain traction because of the need for independent oversight.
Sen. David Haley, D-Kansas City, and Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, D-Wichita, both pointed to extraordinary tragedies in their districts as they joined Republicans who voted in favor of the Senate plan. The bill passed by a 31-4 vote and awaits consideration in the House.
Faust-Goudeau said the Senate plan isn’t perfect, but problems in foster care are why she ran for office.
“We’ve got to do something and start somewhere,” she said.
During Wednesday’s debate, Baumgardner said Saint Francis Ministries was responsible for 58% of the 67 missing foster kids, a number that hasn’t improved in three years. She said the office of child advocate would help provide insight into pervasive problems with missing kids, low graduation rates, and slow responses to reports of abuse or neglect.
So far this year, the daily average for missing foster children is 63, with day-to-day numbers fluctuating between 54 and 72. From 2017-2019, the daily average of missing kids ranged from 73 to 81. The number of missing children who are in the care of Saint Francis are proportionate to the contractor’s handling of about half of the state’s foster kids.
Under former Gov. Sam Brownback, the Legislature adopted severe restrictions on food assistance and child care support for the state’s most vulnerable families, leading to a surge in the number of kids who entered foster care. The surge contributed to worsening instability in the system, exacerbated by the state’s secret withholding of payments to foster care providers.
“This is a nonpartisan issue. This isn’t about Democrats and Republicans,” said Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover. “I don’t care who’s in the administration. I’ve been here long enough to serve under five governors, both parties, and because of the human condition, all administrations have to deal with abused and neglected children.”
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