Gov. Laura Kelly approves bill creating independent agency devoted to child welfare

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TOPEKA — Gov. Laura Kelly signed bipartisan legislation placing into state law establishment of an independent agency dedicated to serving as an advocate for children involved with the state welfare system.

The second-term governor also signed a bill committing the Legislature to providing public universities and colleges $32.7 million annually to address backlogs of building maintenance and capital improvement projects. Another measure signed by Kelly would forbid utilities from deploying eminent domain when securing land for solar generation facilities.

In addition, Kelly agreed Monday the sign the bill creating special Kansas license plates honoring the Kansas City football team, Kansas City Royals, Sporting Kansas City and the Kansas City Current.

Kelly and Republican and Democratic legislators praised movement of Senate Bill 115 across the finish line after years of disagreement on structure of the child advocate’s office. Between 2017 and 2021, state legislators failed to find compromise on establishment of the office. In 2021, the Democratic governor issued an executive order establishing the division of child advocate in the executive branch. There was an attempt to place control of the child advocate with a Republican state attorney general.

The bill approved 117-3 in the House and 36-3 in the Senate inserts authority for the child advocate’s office in state statute. The leader of the independent agency would be appointed by the governor and subject to Senate confirmation. The agency’s administrator would serve a five-year term and must have experience in legal, clinical and case management services to children and families.

Kelly said the legislation would promote accountability and transparency in child welfare proceedings and would heighten protection for youth who sometimes fell through the cracks.

“For over seven years, we have worked tirelessly to pass this legislation,” said Rep. Jarrod Ousley, D-Merriam. “The concept of an office of child advocate has taken many forms, been heavily debated in the Legislature and — far too often — got caught up in disagreements over the details.”

Rep. Susan Concannon, R-Beloit, said SB 115 should provide Kansans with “peace of mind that we will have a future of advocacy for Kansas Kids who are in the child welfare system.”

The law outlined responsibilities of the child advocate, including addressing complaints about child welfare, making referrals related to suspected child abuse or neglect to law enforcement, providing annual reports on child welfare issues and maintaining a public website on the office’s work.

Sen. Molly Baumgardner, R-Louisburg, said the office of child advocate would serve interests of adults as well as foster care youth.

“So many Kansas parents have told me that our welfare system actually created new harms within their families. They’ve begged for there to be someone they could trust to help them,” Baumgardner said. “These harms were echoed at the Kansas Child Welfare Summit held last week, when former foster care youth recounted the physical and emotional trauma they endured when taken from their homes.”

Meanwhile, Kelly signed Senate Bill 18 to implement a six-year program allocating $30 million annually to state universities and $2.7 million annually to community colleges, technical colleges and Washburn University for academic building maintenance, repair or demolition. The program would run from July 2025 to July 2030.

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“Community colleges and technical colleges … it would be the first time they’ve received these funds,” said Sen. Rick Billinger, R-Goodland. “They have the same issues with leaking roofs and windows.”

The statute would require the six state universities in the Kansas Board of Regents system to match with nonstate dollars the state grants. None of the community colleges, technical colleges or Washburn would have that matching obligation.

Kelly signed Senate Bill 359 to authorize issuance by the Kansas Department of Revenue of branded license plates for fans of the Chiefs, Royals, Sporting KC and the Current. Other plates in the package would display loyalty and raise money for Sedgwick County Zoo, Topeka Zoo and Support the Troops. There was mild opposition to the package with the House vote 101-19 and the Senate vote 38-1.

Senate Bill 455, approved unanimously by the Legislature, placed a prohibition on utility companies from relying on eminent domain to acquire land for development of solar farms for generation of electricity.

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: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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