TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Gov. Laura Kelly on Monday created an independent office to review complaints against Kansas' foster care system and recommend changes in child welfare policies, a longtime goal of advocates for abused and neglected children.
The Democratic governor's move to create the office by executive order bypasses the Republican-controlled Legislature. It deadlocked on the issue earlier this year after some lawmakers pushed to put the new office under the GOP official expected to challenge Kelly’s reelection next year.
Kelly issued an order to create the Division of Child Advocate within the state Department of Administration, whose head reports to the governor. The governor would appoint the new division's director for a five-year term.
“We want this to be an office that works on behalf of our children and on behalf of our families,” she said after signing the order at a children's museum in Topeka.
Kelly said that even though she would appoint the director of the child advocate's division, that person's five-year term would make the office “about as independent as you can get.”
Many Republican legislators have argued that the governor shouldn't appoint the child advocate or have a hand in the appointment because the new office monitors state agencies under the governor's direct control. GOP senators pushed for putting the child advocate in the attorney general's office.
Republican Sen. Molly Baumgardner of Louisburg said the child advocate's office is likely to be handling material from whistleblowers.
“We felt that was appropriate because of all of the confidential materials that move into the attorney general’s office on a daily basis,” she said.
Baumgardner called Kelly's arguments about her division's independence “disingenuous" and noted that a future governor could rescind the order creating it.
The Republican-controlled Senate in March approved a proposal for a child advocate in the attorney general's office, only to see it stall in the GOP-controlled House. Many Democrats saw the measure as partisan because Attorney General Derek Schmidt is widely expected to be the GOP nominee for governor next year against Kelly.
A House committee approved its own, bipartisan plan to have the governor and Kansas Supreme Court chief justice appoint the child advocate, with the Legislature directing the work of the advocate’s office. But GOP leaders never scheduled a full House debate.
Andy Tsubasa Field is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.