Kansas House committee approves foster care task force

? A House committee on Tuesday passed a bill that would allow Kansas lawmakers to more closely oversee the state’s privatized foster care system and the contractors that run it amid questions about how the state monitors the program.

The bill passed by the House Children and Seniors Committee would create an 18-member foster care task force to study the system.

The task force would collect data from the Kansas Department for Children and Families on the foster care system and its contractors and make recommendations for improvement. A recent three-part audit found that the department and contractors weren’t collecting enough documentation or data to oversee the program and ensure children were placed in safe, appropriate homes. The final part of the audit, published last month, also said some parts of the state didn’t have enough foster homes to serve children needing placement.

The vote came after former Kansas bail bondsman Michael Jones was sentenced Monday to life in prison for killing his son, Adrian Jones, who was abused and whose remains were found near the family’s pigs in November of 2015. He was killed in September or October of that year. The state’s Department for Children and Families had previously investigated potential abuse and neglect of Adrian, but the state’s last contact with the family was in February of 2012, according to a statement issued last week from the department’s secretary, Phyllis Gilmore. Adrian was in the custody of his father, Jones, and his stepmother, Heather Jones, when he was killed.

Democratic Rep. Jarrod Ousley, of Merriam, said the task force should look at ways to increase capacity in some parts of the state and ways to reduce the number of cases each caseworker is responsible for.

“At the end of the day, kids sleeping in offices is unacceptable,” Ousley said, referring to a Topeka Capital-Journal report that said some children waiting to be placed in a foster home had slept at one of the contractors’ offices.

The Department for Children and Families launched a $500,000 campaign last week aimed at recruiting more foster parents. GOP Gov. Sam Brownback, an adoptive parent, appeared at a press conference for the campaign and encouraged people to become foster parents.

The task force would be made up of 10 lawmakers from both chambers and parties and eight other members, including judges, lawyers, and child advocates with experience in child welfare. The Department for Children and Families and the two contractors that operate the foster care system would also each appoint a non-voting member to provide the group with information. The task force would make recommendations at the start of next year’s legislative session for improvements to the program. It would then submit reports on the program’s progress each year after that.

House Majority Leader Don Hineman said the chamber could debate the bill this week, but he wasn’t sure. The Legislature has been working to fill an $887 million budget shortfall through June 2019.