Bill creates agency devoted to child welfare

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



April 23, 2024 - 1:50 PM

Rep. Jarrod Ousley, D-Merriam, welcomed signing into law by Gov. Laura Kelly of bipartisan legislation establishing the office of child advocate after years of debate on the issue mired in disputes over details of the office. Photo by Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector

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 Chiefs, 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.”

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