Kansas to pay $75K to settle lawsuit in child-abuse death

photo by: Peter Hancock

Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle, left, Gov. Jeff Colyer and House Speaker Ron Ryckman, three of the nine members of the State Finance Council, vote Monday, Nov. 19, 2018, to approve paying $75,000 to settle a lawsuit over the 2012 child abuse death of a toddler in El Dorado. The girl's father alleged that child welfare officials knew of ongoing abuse but did nothing about it.

TOPEKA – The state of Kansas has agreed to pay $75,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by the father of an 18-month-old El Dorado girl who died of child abuse, even after child welfare authorities had been alerted to the ongoing danger.

Jayla Michelle Haag Watters died in March 2012 in what authorities described as a meth house.

According to court records, Jayla was born with methamphetamine in her system, but the Kansas Department for Children and Families allowed her mother, Alyssa Haag, to retain custody of her while the natural father, Steven Watters, was ordered to pay child support.

Jayla continued to live with her mother and her mother’s boyfriend, both of whom were described as heavy meth users. DCF reportedly investigated at least one report of suspected child abuse in October 2011.

In March 2012, she was admitted to a hospital with bleeding in her brain, methamphetamine in her system, missing teeth and bruises. She died eight days later.

Alyssa Haag later pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter in connection with the death.

Steven Watters filed a lawsuit alleging that DCF was responsible for Jayla’s death because it had failed to investigate reports of child abuse and had failed to remove the girl from her mother’s custody.

“It’s a truly horrific case, something I’m ashamed of,” Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, told reporters Monday after the State Finance Council voted to approve the settlement. “But as a result, with numerous people overseeing these court actions, I believe it won’t happen again.”

In 2014, a state judge in Wichita granted the state’s motion to dismiss the case. But a three-judge panel of the Kansas Court of Appeals later reversed that decision and sent the case back to district court for further proceedings.

On Monday, though, the State Finance Council — a nine-member panel made up of the governor and top legislative leaders from both chambers — voted to approve the $75,000 settlement after meeting for about 20 minutes in a closed-door executive session with officials from Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt’s office.

The settlement comes on the heels of a class-action lawsuit that was filed against the state on Friday, which alleges that children in the state’s foster care system are routinely shuffled from one placement to the next, effectively rendering them homeless and denying them access to needed mental health care.

The settlement also comes just two weeks after the election of Democrat Laura Kelly as the state’s next governor. Kelly has said she wants to boost funding and staffing at DCF to address problems in the child welfare system.

Wagle declined on Monday to comment on the latest lawsuit, saying she hadn’t had time to review the details of that case.

But she did say that significant improvements have been made to the child welfare system under the leadership of new DCF Secretary Gina Meier-Hummel, who took over the agency in December 2017, and she said Kelly’s request for additional funding at DCF could meet resistance in the Republican-controlled Legislature.

“From what I’ve heard so far, it appears to me that the new governor has a nice, long wish list and all of it comes with a price tag, so I’m not interested in spending more money than we’re bringing in,” Wagle said.

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, however, said in a separate interview that he thinks there will be room in the next budget to fund improvements in the child welfare system.

“Financially, we’re in pretty good shape to where we can take care of several of these areas that have been neglected,” Hensley said. “And I know that the incoming governor has had some real concerns about the foster care system, so I’m presuming that she’s going to have some proposals of her own.”


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