TOPEKA (TNS) — Foster parenting in Kansas can involve navigating a web of officials, social workers and contractors.
For years, those parents could take problems and concerns to an ombudsman in the Department for Children and Families.
Now the job sits open, even as Kansas provides foster care to 7,300 children.
DCF had offered the ombudsman as a place for frustrated foster parents to go, whether it was over a problematic social worker or poor communication with a foster care provider. But some child advocates questioned its value, and the agency's new leadership is unsure whether it will fill the position.
DCF is expanding its team devoted to responding to the concerns of foster families and others. The team may not include an ombudsman.
"At this time a decision hasn't been made whether our customer response team will include an exclusive role of an ombudsman for the foster care program" or if there are other ways to structure it, agency spokesman Mike Deines said Wednesday.
DCF created the position in 2014, but it has proven controversial, with some child advocates questioning its effectiveness. Because the ombudsman was a DCF employee, skeptics doubted the position had the independence to actually hold the agency accountable.
The agency named an ombudsman amid a push for a "Foster Parents' Bill of Rights" -- legislation that would have guaranteed foster parents more information about children coming into their care and a greater say in what ultimately happens to a child. The legislation never passed.
Lori Ross, a longtime child advocate in Kansas and Missouri, said she believes establishing an ombudsman was an attempt to pacify foster and adoptive families.
"The fact that DCF is currently not sure they want to replace that position is positive to me, in that I don't know that the position as it currently exists is anything other than the waste of a salary," Ross said.
The ombudsman position became vacant on Jan. 13, the day before Gov. Laura Kelly took office. The ombudsman's webpage has gone dark.
Asked why the job became vacant, Deines said only that it became vacant under the previous administration.
Deines emphasized that there are several ways for people to bring concerns to DCF, including through the agency's customer service office, a regional service center or the agency's partners.
"If someone wishes to contact our agency with feedback or concerns, there is no wrong door to get that information to our agency," Deines said.
Some lawmakers want to add an independent voice for foster parents.
The past two years lawmakers have discussed creating an Office of the Child Advocate that would operate separately from DCF. The advocate would have extensive access to agency records and could meet with families and state officials about cases.
Eleven states, including Colorado and Missouri, have independent ombudsman or child advocate positions overseeing child welfare, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Among the supporters of creating an advocate is Judy Conway, the grandmother of Adrian Jones. Seven-year-old Adrian was abused, starved and killed in his Kansas City, Kan., home in 2015.
"In so many cases people have stated that if they called DCF with concerns regarding the welfare of a child" they didn't get anywhere, Conway told lawmakers last year.
House Bill 2187, which would create a child advocate in Kansas, sits in the House Children and Seniors Committee this year.
A hearing was scheduled for last week but then canceled. Rep. Jarrod Ousley, a Merriam Democrat who introduced the bill, indicated he didn't have proponents ready for the hearing, but said he hopes to revisit it next year.
"If DCF still has the vacancy in the ombudsman, I think that strengthens the proponent argument for the Office of the Child Advocate," Ousley said.
DCF has not had time to consider whether it prefers an ombudsman or child advocate, Deines said. But he added that the agency supports a "robust system of response" to concerns.
Under the Colyer administration, the agency opposed the creation of a child advocate.