Gov. Sam Brownback on Friday signed a bill creating a task force to examine the Kansas foster care system.
The number of children in the Kansas foster care system has set records in recent years, passing 7,100 in April. The death of an abused boy in Kansas City, Kansas, also raised concerns about whether the system was protecting children.
Brownback didn’t comment on his decision to sign the bill.
The legislation establishes a 20-member task force, which will break into smaller working groups to study elements of the child welfare system. The working groups also can bring in non-members with expertise about the topics they are investigating.
The task force will have to start quickly, as the bill requires the task force leaders to start appointing members to working groups by Aug. 15.
The working groups will study topics including:
- How the Kansas Department for Children and Families oversees foster care, reintegration and adoption services.
- What other state agencies and nonprofits contribute to the child welfare system.
- Children’s access to needed services, such as mental health care. Why the number of children in foster care is increasing.
- Licensing standards for people working in the system.
- The task force will submit a preliminary report in January, with the final report recommending possible changes to the system due one year later.
The bill had a long path through the Legislature. The House Children and Seniors Committee inserted the task force language into the shell of a Senate bill having to do with child care facilities after spending the first two months of the session collecting testimony about the child welfare system.
DCF objected to language in the bill requiring a “corrective action plan,” which officials said could jeopardize $48 million in federal funding if lawmakers demanded changes that conflicted with federal rules. The committee softened the language in response, though Rep. Jarrod Ousley, a Merriam Democrat and one of the bill’s most vocal backers, said he thought it was clear the task force would only make recommendations to the Legislature.
The bill went to conference committee after passing the House. There, Senate negotiators made changes to reduce the number of lawmakers on the task force and to create the working groups, which weren’t in the original bill. Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat, said they were concerned a committee with too many lawmakers wouldn’t come up with a plan the rest of the Legislature could act on.
DCF Secretary Phyllis Gilmore said Friday that the final version of the bill addressed the department’s concerns. She said DCF officials are excited to work with the task force members.
“We appreciate the work of Kansas lawmakers who collaborate with us to continue to make the safety and well-being of children a high priority,” she said in a written statement. “This is much-improved legislation that will look at the entire child welfare system in a holistic manner, including privatization, family preservation services, reintegration services and the level of access to necessary physical and mental health services in the community.”
Ousley said he hopes the task force will recommend specific actions the Legislature can consider to improve the child welfare system.
“I want better outcomes for our children in foster care,” he said. “Right now we’re not doing the best service we can.”
Meg Wingerter is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio and KMUW covering health, education and politics.