Nearly a year after Governor Laura Kelly created the office by executive order, the Kansas Children’s Advocate Division has 69 open investigations into the Kansas child welfare system.
The non-partisan control office was created by executive order as an independent oversight body to investigate complaints about the child protection system.
Kerrie Lonard, the named children’s advocate, told lawmakers during a hearing on Tuesday that the office had completed seven investigations. The findings of these investigations will not be made public until the bureau publishes its annual report next year.
The office was the subject of intense political wrangling in Topeka. Last year, Kansas House and Senate lawmakers each sought versions of the bills, but were deadlocked over the location of the office.
In October, after the Legislative Assembly failed to pass a bill, Kelly announced that she would establish the office within the Administration office.
Since her appointment in December, Lonard said she has fully staffed the office and worked to develop investigative policies and procedures. The office has received complaints about a wide range of child protection issues, including the initial removal of a child from their family, concerns about case managers and legal counsel, and the quality of mental health services. .
After completing an investigation, the office issues a series of recommendations to the agencies involved.
“Success is going to be measured, one, just owning our own internal processes and working and responding to people who bring us a concern,” Lonard said. “Then I think there are the larger-scale successes and I think it gives voice to people who really felt like they had no other place to voice those concerns.”
Even when the office gets up and running, there remains a point of political contention.
During Saturday’s debate at the Kansas State Fair, Republican Attorney General Derek Schmidt, Kelly’s gubernatorial contender, called the office ineffective in its current form. One of his top priorities, Schmidt said, would be to work with the Legislative Assembly to codify the office into law.
Schmidt’s campaign manager, CJ Grover, doubled down on his criticism in a statement Tuesday. He pointed to low public awareness, single-digit number of closures investigations and lack of public recommendations as “failures”.
“These failures occurred because the Governor chose to go it alone by Executive Order instead of working bipartisanly with the Legislative Assembly to create a truly effective office of child advocacy with the ability to do more than just investigate complaints,” Grover said.
State Rep. Jarrod Ousley, a Democrat from Merriam, argued against that characterization and said the office should have time to work out its policies before the legislature gets involved.
“I don’t think it’s a bad thing to let the office continue to do the work and see where we are,” Ousley said. “Are you measuring (success) child by child, family by family? Because I think you’ll find a lot of success stories coming out of this office.
Lonard told reporters she would like the office to become part of the law eventually.
“There are a number of things that the executive order allows us to start building and figuring out what is going to work in Kansas, but there are a number of things that I think are necessary for us to really be as efficient as possible. . here in Kansas and it needs to be done in law,” Lonard said.
“Location wise, it works. I think we have been given the autonomy to really operate independently.
But Republican lawmakers have indicated they would still like to see the office placed in law and removed from the administration office.
State Representative Susan Concannon, a Republican from Beloit, said work to codify the office has stalled in the House this year and the chamber has had no conversations about the office with the Senate. Concannon had supported a version of the office that reported directly to the Legislative Assembly.
“I think it’s still a bone of contention over where it’s being hosted and there’s discussion among my leadership in the Legislative Assembly as to whether the appointment itself was ever made legally,” he said. said Concannon. “I’m just glad we have someone to take care of the kids.”
State Senator Molly Baumgardner, a Republican from Louisbourg, said it was the responsibility of the legislation would relate to the November legislative elections. Baumgardner had supported a version of the office that reported to the attorney general.
She was frustrated with the time the existing office had taken to establish an online presence and get a running dial-in number.
“If we had opted for the Senate version, there is already an office, there is already expertise to put things in place. It didn’t happen,” Baumgardner said.