Capitol Update: Ousley calls for action on legislation to improve Department of Children and Family Services, says work ‘too important to be lost’

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Each legislative session, we provide northeast Johnson County’s elected officials with the chance to share their thoughts about what’s happening in the state capitol. Rep. Jarrod Ousley submits this week’s update:

During my first term, I sat as a freshman legislator on the House Children and Seniors Committee.  While on the committee, I began to learn a little about the history of the Department of Children and Family Services (DCF), what used to be known as Social and Rehabilitative Services (SRS). Back in the 1990s, after facing three high-profile lawsuits, including one that stemmed from problems related to underfunding, privatization of the State’s flawed system was touted as a way to correct oversight errors.

This seemed very similar to some of the issues surrounding public education today, with the state underfunding a system, and certain groups calling for privatization efforts (like corporate tax credit scholarships and private charter school systems) as the solution to the problems created by underfunding.   The major difference was that the children’s wellbeing, not just their education, was on the line, and social workers, unlike teachers, do not have an association to protect them from retaliation if they speak up on behalf of the impacted children.

In 2015 the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families issued a review of Kansas’ Foster Care services, and found that Kansas was not meeting national standards in four out of seven of the standards reviewed.  Kansas was informed that it would need to enter a Performance Improvement Plan to address deficiencies.

Also in 2015, during my initial work on the committee, I was contacted by several Guardian Ad-Litems (GALs)(persons appointed by a court to look out for the best interests of a child), who were concerned about the processes in place at DCF.  These GALs called for an investigation, and publicly noted that those involved in the child care system were reluctant to come forward as they feared potential reprisal. They stated, “Absent protections for those with evidence of any wrongdoing to step forward, a legislative audit or investigation remains the only means by which a completely closed system may be transparent to the public.”  You can read more about this effort here.

The Kansas Post Legislative Audit was eventually conducted after high profile abuse cases were made public. In July 2016 this Post Audit revealed that DCF has not yet implemented several recommendations for its child protective services function and does not respond to all report center calls in a timely manner.  It further revealed that as of May 2016, DCF had only implemented one out of nine safety-related recommendations from a 2013 assessment of its child protective services function.  Background checks of individuals in foster homes do not happen as often or as thoroughly as they should.  Monthly in-person visits of children do not always occur, and there are concerns with DCF staff turnover, morale, and training. Finally, DCF is understaffed, and is short approximately 460 social workers.

During my time on an interim oversight committee last summer, committee members learned even more about the need for generally improved operations.  So this year, when session began, I was appointed as the Ranking Minority member of Children and Seniors, and I was pleased to have Rep. Steven Alford (R) as Chair and Rep. Linda Gallagher (R) as Vice Chair, along with several newly elected legislators eager to make a difference.  The last few months our committee members have thrown themselves into the work of understanding the operating system at DCF and exploring the avenues via which the legislature can offer its assistance in making improvements.

Our efforts have led to a bill that would create a Joint Committee, with both members of the Kansas House and Kansas Senate, appointed by House and Senate Leadership, and to include experts in the field of child services (including judges, social workers, and first responders).  This committee would be tasked with creating and proposing policy solutions.  You can read more about the bill creating the committee here.

The bill has not yet come for a vote on the House floor.  We have Monday and Tuesday of this week to vote and approve it.  This bill, and the work proposed by this bill – creating solutions to support the agency that protects vulnerable Kansas children – is too important to be lost in the hectic end of session push.  While there are many important issues facing our legislature this year, including vital revenue reform and an education funding formula, those of us on Children and Seniors understand this issue must be addressed as soon as possible.  Republicans and Democrats on Children and Seniors are united in our efforts to help.  Rep. Gallagher called this bill our committee’s signature achievement this session.  I completely agree.

It is my hope that by the time you read this, the House will have voted to protect the health of vulnerable Kansans by overriding the Governor’s veto of Medicaid expansion, and that the House will have voted to protect vulnerable children by passing House Substitute for Senate Bill 126 (HB 2019), creating the Foster Care Task Force.

Thank you for the opportunity to serve the 24th District.  My office in Topeka is 452-S.   I can be reached at (785) 296-7366 at jarrod.ousley@house.ks.gov and www.facebook.com/JarrodOusleyforthe24th. In addition to the updates here in the Post, you can sign up for my newsletter here: https://www.jarrodousley.com/legislative_news  and receive bi-weekly updates directly.