Topeka — A Legislative panel will begin working a major foster care bill today.
Major foster care legislation will be on the table today for a House panel that will meet ahead of the full Legislature's return here on Wednesday. The panel will try to fine-tune the wording of the so-called Kansas Child Welfare Reform Act.
House Bill 2571, introduced late in the regular session, among other things attempts to make clear the state's responsibility for foster children with several provisions aimed at assuring quality services are provided for troubled youth.
Foster care critics maintain that lines of accountability were blurred and services suffered when private contractors replaced the state welfare agency in March 1997 as front-line providers of foster care. The changeover was part of a state initiative to privatize child welfare.
The bill initially appeared to have little chance of passage this year. But recent cooperation from Social and Rehabilitation Services, the state welfare agency, has improved the bill's likelihood of moving, several committee members said Tuesday.
"I think prospects are good we're going to get a bill out of subcommittee and out of the House," said Rep. Rocky Nicholas, a Topeka Democrat. "I've just heard from so many House members who believe we need to address the crisis in foster care in a significant way. So many, in fact, I believe it would be irresponsible if we didn't act on this bill."
Rep. Melvin Neufeld, R-Ingalls, is chair of the panel studying the bill. He could not be reached for comment. But the measure also has Republican support.
"I think it's important to set out in statute our policy," said Rep. Tony Powell, a Wichita Republican. "A lot of the privatization that was done really was done unilaterally by the executive branch. I think (this bill) is the right thing to do."
SRS was initially unenthusiastic about the measure, but has gradually warmed to it as talks with lawmakers have progressed and some of the agency's suggested changes have been incorporated into it.
"We've had several volleys and counter-volleys," Nichols said. "Foster care has almost been like a Ping Pong ball the last few weeks. SRS took our bill and basically crossed through about every line and said this is what we'll accept. So far, it's been going back and forth. But that shows SRS is engaged and wants something to pass."
"I think Joyce Allegrucci (SRS commissioner of Children and Family Services) and her folks have done a lot of talking to members of the community so we could all craft something that's going to work," said SRS spokesman John Garlinger.
Rep. Ed McKechnie, D-Pittsburg, a co-sponsor, said without the bill lawmakers are unlikely to approve the almost $18 million increase sought for child welfare by the administration in the 2000 budget.
"The administration continues to ask the Legislature to pump in millions of dollars. I think we're all supportive of that," McKechnie said. "But I think business as usual is going to have to be redefined slightly. The bill explains the relationship between the contractors and the state. It places in law that (SRS) is responsible for every child that enters the system."
The bill will be worked by the House Appropriations subcommittee on social services beginning at 8 a.m. today and Friday in Room 519 at the Statehouse.
-- Mike Shields' phone message number is 832-7144. His e-mail address is email@example.com.