Kansas Republicans To Advance Children’s Advocate

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Governor Laura Kelly on Monday signed an executive order establishing an office of the children’s advocate in Kansas.

Kansas City Star

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly’s executive order creating a long-debated office to oversee the state’s foster care agency is welcomed by Republican lawmakers, who have been unable to pass their own proposal but dislike his decision to go ahead without them and question the effectiveness of his plan.

GOP lawmakers on the Child Protection Oversight Committee have said they will continue to pursue their own proposals, which were blocked earlier this year. These include subjecting the job to legislative confirmation and hosting the office outside the executive branch controlled by Kelly, who is due for re-election next year.

The committee was already scheduled to meet on Tuesday and Wednesday. Kelly announced Monday afternoon that she had formed the office by Order in Council.

Senator Richard Hildebrand, Republican of Galena and chairman of the committee, called the move a “slap in the face.”

While The committee made no formal recommendation on Wednesday, Hildebrand said the issue would be on its agenda next month.

The push for reforms in the childcare system has been spurred by reports of abuse, including a 2017 Kansas City Star investigation that revealed the Department of Child Welfare efforts to keep its problems hidden from the public. using privacy laws and internal procedures.

But legislative efforts to create an independent law firm have been unsuccessful. Republicans, who hold a qualified majority, are divided on how to proceed. In the last session, the Senate adopted its own version which placed the office in the hands of the Attorney General. But he lacked support among child protection advocates and House lawmakers.

Democratic proposals have also languished, including one by Rep. Jarrod Ousley, a Democrat from Merriam, who has long advocated for the office.

Democrats praised Kelly for bringing up an issue the legislature has discussed for years without taking action: forming an independent office that could investigate and recommend changes to the state’s foster care agency.

Speaking to reporters on Monday, Kelly urged the Legislature to convert the executive order into state law so that it can survive his administration.

“I have no doubt that my colleagues in the legislature are thinking very seriously about this and will work together to see if there is a way to cement this into a law,” she said.

Under the order, the lawyer would be appointed by Kelly and would work in the executive branch administration office. The person appointed, however, would function independently and not report to the head of the office, the secretary of administration.

The lawyer would compile and investigate complaints regarding the health, safety, welfare, and civil or human rights of children in the public system. They would also monitor and analyze the system’s compliance with federal and state laws. Lawyer reports will be open to the public to the extent permitted by state confidentiality laws.

In an email Tuesday, a spokesperson for Kelly, the governor hoped to have a lawyer hired by the start of the legislative session in January and that the office would be funded by reallocations within the executive this year. . The lawyer will serve a five-year term.

In the future, the state legislature will need to allocate funds to the office.

But Republicans argued that placing the lawyer on the executive and giving Kelly the only power of appointment amounted to “fox guarding the henhouse” and would discourage whistleblowers from coming forward.

“It’s no different than anyone else might have done at any other time with regards to filing a complaint; it’s just a matter of moving it to another department, ”said Senator Molly Baumgardner, a Republican from Louisbourg.

Several of the other 21 child advocates nationwide, including the one in Missouri, operate as Kansas would under Kelly’s order – independently within the executive branch. Others have been placed in agencies for children and families, the judiciary, the legislature or with state attorneys general..

Republicans in the legislature were divided over the location of the office but agreed not to house it in the executive branch. On Wednesday, they didn’t seem closer to a deal.

Rep. Susan Concannon, a Republican from Beloit who sponsored the Ousley House The bill, which was supported by supporters in the last session, said she remained committed to passing it. This version would establish a permanent statutory office that would include all three branches of government in the appointment process and move the post under the supervision of the Legislative Assembly..

“What concerns me is that he is part of the executive, it is the opportunity for post abuse,” said Concannon.

“There are still concerns from my management that have yet to be addressed and their concerns as to whether (the Executive Order) is the right way to do it or not, I share that concern.”

However, Concannon said, she felt Kelly’s actions had not brought the House and Senate closer to a resolution.

Conannon said she still believes the Senate version of the bill is too flawed and wouldn’t consider it. Lawyers at the time were concerned that the Senate bill would give them too much power and that the attorney general could use the office for political purposes.

But Senate Republicans insisted Tuesday they had the strongest bill and would push their version forward.

“If we ever make it to the conference committee, the Senate’s position will be vigorously opposed,” Hildebrand said.

Lawmakers also questioned whether Kelly’s action was the best legal course. Attorney General Derek Schmidt, considered the alleged GOP candidate to take on Kelly next year, called the move “unusual.”

But Concannon said she was certain Kelly would succeed in appointing a lawyer.

“I’m not sure if it was the right thing to do legally, but I’m not sure if anyone is going to dispute it at this point until we get our bill,” Concannon said.

“We are looking at all the specifics and details of the bill and the idea. What we have to keep above all else is the safety of the child. What I believed was that the checks and balances that were inherently in the system just weren’t working. “

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Katie Bernard covers the Kansas Legislature and State Government for the Kansas City Star. She joined The Star as a late-breaking journalist in May 2019 before joining the political team in December 2020. Katie studied journalism and political science at the University of Kansas.

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