Topeka SRS Commissioner of Children and Family Services Joyce Allegrucci said the agency likes some parts of the bill but that it essentially would rewrite the state's child welfare code.
Newly introduced legislation to overhaul the state's controversial child welfare system was endorsed Monday by various experts who said it would make state welfare officials more accountable for problems when they occur and help end confusion about the roles of the state and its contractors in serving abused and neglected children.
The measure's sponsors said it is meant to correct major glitches and restore confidence in a system dramatically transformed -- critics say damaged -- by a 1997 privatization initiative of the administration of Gov. Bill Graves.
"Legislators are so close to losing confidence in the whole system," said Rep. Ed McKechnie, a Pittsburg Democrat and one of three lawmakers who helped craft the proposal unveiled only last week as the Legislature began moving toward wrap-up of its 90-day annual session.
Legislative supporters of House Bill 2571, also called the Kansas Child Welfare Reform Act, said it or something like it must pass this year if confidence in the state's troubled foster-care system is to be restored enough to gain lawmaker approval of an extra $35 million sought by the administration for privatized child welfare programs. Most of that money would be used to cover deficits suffered by four private child welfare contractors overwhelmed when the number of children taken into state custody jumped dramatically after the 1997 privatization.
But most legislators are loath to approve that extra money without passage of a bill spelling out corrections and improvements to the system, backers insisted.
Rep. Melvin Neufeld, the Ingalls Republican who heads the House Appropriations subcommittee hearing the bill, said it comes too late in the session to stand much chance of passage. Neufeld, who helped engineer the 1997 privatization, said he also fears the bill would return too much power to Social and Rehabilitation Services and roll back the earlier changes.
SRS officials testified on the bill last Friday. Although they professed to be neutral, they listed enough potential problems and technical faults with the measure that many who heard supposed they were in opposition.
SRS Commissioner of Children and Family Services Joyce Allegrucci said the agency likes some parts of the bill but that it essentially would rewrite the state's child welfare code.
"That's never easy," she said, least of all late during a legislative session.
Among other things the bill would require that SRS have a complete file with medical and school history for each child in state custody. The file would travel with the child and be available to service providers. SRS also would be required to maintain a centralized tracking system so that it could account for the whereabouts within the system of any foster child any given day.
Other key components:
- Required collaboration among the various professionals, legal, medical, and educational, who might deal with a foster child.
- SRS would be required to periodically assess the housing needs of foster children and assure they are being kept in the least restrictive environment suitable to their needs.
- Require each foster-care contractor to subcontract with local community mental health centers so that foster children could receive local treatment.
- Create a new office of foster-care advocacy under the umbrella of the Legislature instead of the executive branch.
Hearings on the bill will continue today with possible action taken by the end of the week, Neufeld said.
-- Mike Shields' phone message number is 832-7144. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.