The Topeka Capital-Journal published a stunning story this week on foster care in Kansas. It begs the question: Why hasn’t the legislature prioritized foster care oversight and reform in the last decade?

From 2016 to 2018 under Governors Sam Brownback and Jeff Colyer, the Kansas Department for Children and Families (DCF) “secretly withheld” millions of dollars from private foster care contractors. Those nonprofits suffered significant financial strain, which negatively impacted children in state custody.

These facts are just now becoming public since the contractors had been “bound by a state-imposed nondisclosure agreement[s].” Governor Laura Kelly resolved the issue after assuming office.

Problems with foster care in Kansas are nothing new. You might remember missing children, kids sleeping in contractor offices, and archaic DCF technology, among others. This new revelation is another sad wrinkle.

The key quote in the article comes from Sen. Richard Hilderbrand of Cherokee County: “It infuriates me that that was our mode of operation instead of doing what’s right. The kids are in such a traumatic state anyway, and then we put them through that.”

He’s right. These actions are infuriating, falling somewhere between petty bureaucratic politics and state-sanctioned child neglect.

But, who is “we” in his quote?

Foremost, “we” is Brownback, Colyer, and their administration officials. Their shortchanging of foster care should define their moral legacy.

However, the buck doesn’t stop there. “We” is also the Kansas legislature.

There are unanswered questions about the role of the legislature here, especially leaders of the two chambers and relevant committee chairs—the folks with the real institutional power, some of whom still serve in Topeka. What did you know and when? If you didn’t know what was happening, why?

Basically, where was the oversight that could have stopped or prevented this? Where was the enthusiasm to check executive power back then?

During those years, the major legislative innovation on foster care was establishing the Child Welfare System Task Force in 2017 to suggest legislation and regulatory changes. Basically, a study committee. Its 2019 report to the legislature is available online.

As media have since reported, the legislature has largely ignored the Task Force’s recommendations. The Governor also lacks the power to fully implement them herself because many require legislation.

Why spend money to create the Task Force, and then ignore its work? Disagreement with its recommendations? Low interest? Low political payoff, especially compared to recent tax and abortion debates that commanded legislative attention but yielded nothing? Money, of lack thereof? That’s always a rationale for avoidance, especially now with Kansas facing a budget shortfall.

To Topeka’s credit, the Family First Prevention Services Act became law in 2018 to capitalize on federal dollars focused on prevention strategies, but it pre-dates the still dangling Task Force report.

Yes, some legislators have promoted better foster care oversight and policy, most notably Representative Jarrod Ousley and former Representative Linda Gallagher, both of Johnson County. Others have assuredly devoted their attention. Governor Kelly also campaigned in 2018 on better foster care management, and has enacted some reforms.

Fully addressing these problems requires the legislature to invest attention and caring, and work with the Governor. If the legislature is an absent governing partner, that resigns Kansas to limited and possibly less effective foster care reform. The ultimate political losers of that are vulnerable Kansas children.

 

Patrick R. Miller is an associate professor of political science at the University of Kansas.

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