Joint legislative committee looks into relocating Office of Child Advocate
TOPEKA — Kansas legislators leveled criticism at programs designed to serve children subjected to abuse or neglect, alleging attorneys hired by courts to recommend resolution of cases fell short of expectations and asserting a volunteer advocacy initiative failed to mirror diversity of children served.
Sen. Molly Baumgardner, a Louisburg Republican, and Rep. Susan Concannon, a Republican from Beloit, expressed alarm during the Kansas Legislature’s hearings last week on child welfare issues that lawyers, or guardians ad litem, hired by the court to submit recommendations on cases of child neglect or abuse were overworked and insufficiently compensated.
They also said there were reports of attorneys ignoring their responsibility to meaningfully engage with children they’re assigned to serve. It’s alleged some attorneys don’t meet with the children before court appearances as required.
“We know that the guardian ad litems have a big case load and that they’re underpaid,” Concannon said. “That’s given, but I think that’s giving them an excuse. They come out in the hallway and call for a child and they don’t even know who they are.”
Baumgardner said guardians ad litem were heavily influenced by policies of DCF and conclusions of social workers at contractors hired by DCF. She said the problem emerged most frequently when considering whether to separate siblings and when evaluating whether to reintegrate families.
Baumgardner said the Legislature ought to address another common complaint about foster parents and relatives of children in foster care.
“Foster parents have no say, have no input. They are in a position of, ‘If you’re not an advocate, then you’re essentially the enemy of the agency,’” she said.
Office of child advocate
A majority of the Child Welfare System Oversight Committee agreed to make another attempt at embedding in state law a requirement Kansas maintain an Office of Child Advocate to investigate complaints about handling of child welfare cases.
Rep. Susan Humphries, a Wichita Republican with two adopted children, said the existing created by executive order of Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly left open potential for conflicts of interest. The current system is too cozy, she said, because the governor appoints the child advocate and the secretary of the state agency with jurisdiction over the privatized foster care system.
She said the child advocate’s office ought to be supervised by the Legislature or the attorney general. In 2021, the Senate wanted that job placed with Attorney General Derek Schmidt. The House preferred the Legislature. The deadlock was never resolved so Kelly created the position administratively.
“As much as I appreciate the person who is in the office of the child advocate, I don’t feel like it is truly independent when the governor is appointing the same person as secretary of DCF and the office of the child advocate,” Humphries said.
In December 2021, Kelly selected Kerrie Lonard to lead the division of child advocate. Lonard, an attorney and former social worker, is expected to issue her first annual report before start of the 2023 legislative session in January. It will outline inquiries into alleged misconduct.
Cash for CASA
Some members of the committee shared interest in adding $350,000 to the budget of CASA, or Court Appointed Special Advocate, to serve interests of abused or neglected children.
Caitlyn Eakin, state director of the Kansas CASA Association, said 21 local programs coordinate trained volunteers. The caseload is small, she said, to give volunteers opportunity to talk with the child, family members, educators, doctors, therapists and others involved in the child’s life.
She said CASA volunteers were the lone consistent positive role model in the lives of many children who experienced abuse or neglect.
“Kansas CASA and our programs around the state know the importance of following due diligence to prevent an unnecessary separation of a child from their biological family,” she said. “We are also aware that there are many unfortunate circumstances where there is no other option, and for the safety and benefit of the child, they need to be placed in state custody.”
Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, a Wichita Democrat on the child welfare committee, said CASA deployed an insufficient number of Black people to assist children of color disproportionately represented in the state’s foster care population.
“If we talk of the lack of African-Americans who are foster parents or want to be CASAs, I know a host of them who are applying, have the status, but they’re not included,” the senator said. “No disrespect to anybody, but the CASA issue, you know, don’t lay it on me. I’ve been talking for 18 years to be more inclusive. We talk about diversity. We show the films and all of that. Every year, I go home and it’s the same representation. I hear the same things from my constituents.”
The legislative committee also proposed integrating foster care caseworkers back into the state employee system rather than continue to have those people work directly for the contractors. There also was discussion of adopting a foster care bill of rights.
‘Let a child go’
During 15 hours of meetings, a diverse collection of foster parents, academics, lawyers, contractors, state officials and others delved into their experiences with a system responsible for 7,000 children in need of care.
Megan Monsour, a Wichita adoption and foster care attorney for nearly 15 years, presented the oversight committee unvarnished observations through eyes of a lawyer operating in the high-stakes environment.
“This is a very tough job, one that you all have and also that DCF has and the agencies have,” Monsour said. “We’re asking these foster parents to do an impossible job. I will tell you — maybe I shouldn’t admit to this — I have people call me and ask about foster care versus private adoption and I’m like, ‘Well, it is really hard for me to advise people to do foster care, because of the cases I get. I will tear up now. It’s hard, because you have to be ready to let a child go.”
Rick Gaskill, who had a 46-year career in community mental health counseling, said formation of active, affectionate, reciprocal, social and emotional bonds between parent and child were important factors in terms of foster care and adoption.
He said careless movement of vulnerable children among caregivers, sometimes known as attachment disruption, threatened to break these vital bonds with lifelong consequences.
“This attachment process is being created by neurons that are connecting together in certain patterns and that these patterns are lifelong,” he told lawmakers. “A lot of these decisions you all are making are going to determine how this brain is going to knit itself together and what perceptions, what possibilities are available to this child and then to future generations.”
He said any child able to maintain attachment with an adult would be better off in life.
“Attachment is the single-most defining milestone in human social development. Attachment will predict many things in our lives. It predicts success on a job. It predicts successful relationships with other people. It predicts criminal behavior,” Gaskill said.
The federal indictment
Matt Stephens, a vice president at Saint Francis Ministries, said the foster care contractor responsible for most of western Kansas and Sedgwick County was struggling to hold down the number of residential transfers of youth in foster care. In some instances, he said, it was twice as high as desired.
“We need to continue to look at and evaluate to understand who is bouncing and experiencing placement instability,” he said. “National research would indicate that older youth have elevated risk of placement instability. And, the Kansas data mirrors that. Really what we’re seeing is older youth, ages 13 to 18, that have higher levels of disability or needs or higher acuity, they’re experiencing a lot of placement instability.”
He said staff turnover at Saint Francis Ministries in the past year hit 41%, but employee morale wasn’t shaken by the recent indictment by federal prosecutors of two former Saint Francis executives who alleged stole millions of dollars.
“When you look back at the former employees who have been indicted, that’s been two years ago from when they left our employment at Saint Francis Ministries. So, it’s been a long journey to get where we’re at today. I think a lot of people feel validated of what they saw at the time. We appreciate the diligence exhibited by the pursuit of justice. I don’t think our morale has taken a hit by the recent news.”
Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.