Capitol Update: Rep. Ousley urges legislative action to better protect kids in Kansas’ foster care system

Rep. Jarrod Ousley, Democrat in House District 24. File photo.

Each week, we provide Shawnee Mission area legislators the opportunity to share their thoughts about what’s happening in the state capitol. Reps. Jarrod Ousley and Owen Donohoe and Sen. Cindy Holscher are scheduled to send updates this week. 

Below is the submission from Democratic state Rep. Jarrod Ousley of House District 24, covering parts of Merriam, Mission and Overland Park. 

Last week, the death of a six year old foster child, Aaron Carter, was made public in a Kansas Reflector article

Aaron was removed from his foster parents’ home, where he had lived for three years, and placed with an adoptive family that his foster family feared did not have the experience or expertise to manage his autism.  He died within two months after placement.  

Aaron’s death, and the deaths of multiple other children in need of care in Kansas, has once again brought to light the need for significant improvements to our foster care system and the Department of Children and Family services.  

During the last seven years in the Legislature, I have served on the Children and Seniors Committee as the ranking Democrat, served on Foster Care task forces and have been a part of introducing and supporting legislation that would assist in systematic improvements to aid vulnerable children in our state. 

These efforts have been bipartisan, working together with my Republican Chairs and Vice-Chairs — in previous terms, Rep. Alford and Rep, Gallegher, and during this term, Rep. Concannon and Rep. Esau. 

This has included creating the Foster Care Taskforce, a new permanent Foster Care Oversight committee, and multiple attempts to create an Office of the Child Advocate, an ombudsmen role that would advocate for children as they navigate through the Kansas  foster care system. While the state Senate also drafted a bill to create an Office of the Child Advocate, I agree with my Chair that it would have created further problems then it solved.  

There are three things that other states, and experts on child welfare agree upon, and testify in favor of, over and over again in committee:

  1. We need to expand Medicaid. Thirty-nine other states have done so, in part because it creates access to health care for the most vulnerable. Access to services, including physical and mental and behavioral health care, allows families on the edge to stay together. Keeping families who can care for their children if they only can access health care to meet their needs gives children a fighting chance.
  2. We must fully roll back welfare restrictions placed on assistance for needy families and supplemental nutrition during the Brownback era. Accessing emergency funding and money for food provides families that are on the brink the bridge they need to make it. It reduces stress on the family, and allows them to navigate pressing poverty emergencies without breaking.  
  3. We need to establish an Office of the Child Advocate, separate from DCF.  Approximately 22 other states have already established such offices, including Missouri and Nebraska, which take and process complaints and research and advocate for best practices for the legislature to support and implement. Such an office would field complaints from foster parents or others and would assist as children and families navigate Kansas’ privatized (the only one privatized to this extent in the country) child welfare system. 

Finally, there is one final factor that significantly impacts our child welfare system, and that is unique in the extent it has occurred in our state: the extent to which our foster care and child oversight has been privatized. 

No other state has a system that has been as wholly turned over to privatization as Kansas has. 

In 1996, rather than providing additional oversight and funding to correct a troubled system, the state chose privatization. This has allowed the Legislature and politicians to blame private industry when things go wrong, despite the fact that it is the Legislature’s job to create and oversee the system via the policy choices elected officials support with their votes. 

It created an avenue by which the Legislature and the Brownback administration critically underfunded child welfare infrastructure, demanding contractors continue to meet ever increasing needs due to welfare restrictions, while washing their hands of the responsibility of the negative consequences for children.

Unlike with the state’s public education system, there are no union protections for social workers, and frequently the people closest to the children in need are afraid of speaking out in fear of retribution, just as young Aaron Carter’s foster parents allege.  

We have the ability to make many levels of change. 

We could create access to programs we know help vulnerable families. We could provide them with an advocate separate from DCF. And we could fix the system entirely. We just need the votes in the Legislature to do it.   

As always, it is my privilege to serve my constituents in House District 24. 

I can be reached at jarrod.ousley@house.ks.gov, or by phone at (785) 296-7366 and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/JarrodOusleyforthe24th/.