Louisburg Sen. Molly Baumgardner's strategy to force speedy public disclosure about missing foster children drew opposition Thursday from an official in the administration of Gov. Laura Kelly wary of potential cost and reach of the mandate.
The Senate bill would require foster care contractors to inform the Kansas Department for Children and Families within 24 hours of the absence of any of 7,500 Kansas children in foster care. Under the measure drafted by Baumgardner, DCF would be granted 48 hours to inform legislators, the governor and media about missing children.
The bill would also compel DCF to fine its private contractors $500 daily for violations of the proposed disclosure law.
"We can't find missing kids if we don't know that they are missing," Baumgardner said. 'We need, as a Legislature, to get beyond the anecdote. This is taking it beyond the talk and making it part of the walk."
The controversy stems from multiple reports over the past two years of DCF losing track of dozens of foster children. In 2017, DCF leaders in the administration of Gov. Sam Brownback came under fire when it was revealed three sisters under age of 16 ran away from a foster care home in Tonganoxie and had been missing 45 days.
DCF was criticized for allowing contractors to let hard-to-place foster kids sleep overnight in their office buildings. A Johnson County teenager was charged last year with raping a 13-year-old at an Olathe office where contractors were keeping the children overnight.
"That's why we need to know and that's why we need to be part of solving the problem," Baumgardner said.
Rebekah Gaston, director of policy at DCF, told the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee the state agency was opposed to Senate Bill 162 because, without amendment, it would compel disclosure of confidential information about foster children.
She said the Legislature shouldn't jeopardize $55 million in annual federal funding for child welfare programs to satisfy the bill's transparency requirements.
Basic information about the state's missing foster children is reported daily to DCF's secretary and can be shared with the governor's office without change in state law, she said.
"DCF recognizes the good intention of this legislation to address some of the very serious issues our state's child welfare system is facing," Gaston said. "However, the department opposes Senate Bill 162, as it would violate confidentiality laws and place critical federal funding in jeopardy."
Baumgardner, a Republican, said the bill could be amended to forbid disclosure of a child's name and avoid risking loss of federal aid.
She said Kansas legislators had an obligation to drill deeper into the foster-care network to bring urgency to oversight activities.
"It really doesn't matter who is sitting in the governor's seat. It doesn't matter who is sitting in the secretary of DCF's seat," Baumgardner said. "We have a large group of employees that don't change with elections. The culture is: 'We're not going to report.'"