TOPEKA — Children’s advocates and lawmakers rallied Monday behind a Kansas House proposal to name legislation creating a custody rights bill to honor the late state representative Gail Finney.
The reform bill would include 18 rights in the statute for children in the foster care system and 20 rights for foster parents who care for such individuals. Finney, a Democrat from Wichita who disappeared in August 2022, was the author of the proposed bill of rights applicable to children and parents in foster care.
Rep. Sydney Carlin, D-Manhattan, shared an office with Finney for many years on Capitol Hill and couldn’t think of a better tribute to Finney’s work as a lawmaker.
“The Rep. and her husband were stepparents and they saw this issue from both a personal and a legislative perspective,” Carlin said. “Putting these basic rights into the statute will provide security for those acting as foster parents and hopefully provide some solace to children whose lives have been uprooted through no fault of their own.”
The bill of rights outlined in House Bill 2194 would inform children of their right to a stable environment, experience as few placements as possible, have access to appropriate clothing and other personal effects, conduct family visits; attend school and participate in legal proceedings.
It would affirm the right of foster children to privacy, access to lawyers and case managers, and to receive assistance in transitioning out of the welfare system.
As regards foster parents, the legislation would enshrine their right to be treated with dignity and not discriminated against; continue the family values and beliefs; have timely financial repayments and notification of financial obligations; apply for a placement transfer; to attend court hearings and have ongoing contact with a previously placed child.
Kristalle Hedrick, Kansas vice president of programs with FosterAdopt Connect, said the bill of rights legislation would adequately ensure the protection of foster youth and help “raise the voices of our youth on their journey to safety and well-being.”
Older youth in foster care need to understand their basic rights and feel empowered to ask questions and stand up for themselves, said Rachel Marsh, chief executive officer of the Children’s Alliance of Kansas.
“What I want to share is the importance of having a separate statement of rights for foster children that we can hand to them when they can read,” Marsh said. “Just because I, a child welfare advocate, know rights doesn’t mean our adopted children know their rights.”
A clearly stated bill of rights could improve the state’s response to the challenges of foster parent recruitment and retention, he said.
No one offered testimony opposing the pending bill of rights legislation to the House Child Welfare and Foster Care Committee.
Meanwhile, Congresswoman Susan Humphries, R-Wichita, questioned the secretary of the Kansas Department of Children and Families about the slow development of the state’s new child care information system. Her questions arose in the context of calls by some Republican lawmakers for Gov. Laura Kelly to fire DCF secretary Laura Howard.
“I feel like we’ve been hearing about this (IT upgrade) for a long time, like probably even before I became secretary,” said Humphries. “I just want to understand why it took so long.”
Howard said requests for bids for an IT system would be filled within weeks. The governor’s budget recommended that the legislature allocate $100 million over four years for the project, which could take several years to complete. Howard said the process of developing the information system required the involvement of the state and different levels of the federal government, which extended the timeline.
Humphries also questioned Howard about the process of developing new contracts for contractors that provide reliance management services to the state. He said there should be DCF oversight in terms of how the RFPs for those contracts are written. He said the goal should be to prevent the agency from shaping the document to make it easier for certain organizations to hire and undermine others.
“We’ve seen things in the past that would make us think maybe a little accountability would be a good thing,” said Humphries.
Howard said requests for proposals to potential candidates for case management contracts would be released over the summer. Currently, there are four contractors handling custody cases in Kansas. About 25 other organizations work to place children in foster homes.
In the past, Sen. Molly Baumgardner, R-Louisburg, has said the state should break the foster care agreement with Cornerstones of Care. She said Cornerstones was responsible for Ace Scott, an adopted son who ran away and was found dead days later.
Rep. Susan Concannon, a Beloit Republican and House foster care committee chair, recommended the state stop doing business with foster care provider St. Francis Ministeries after two executives were indicted by federal prosecutors for allegedly fraud.