The Topeka Capital-Journal, Nov. 19

Causes of our foster care crisis in Kansas

The Child Welfare System Task Force held a meeting earlier this week, and lawmakers would do well to pay attention to the comments made by two Kansas judges in attendance. Taylor Wine is a magistrate judge for the state’s Fourth Judicial District, and he called attention to the lack of drug rehabilitation and mental health services in the state, as well as “enormous caseloads that prevent the attention these kids require.”

Wyandotte County District Court Judge Daniel Cahill agreed: “Not only do I agree those are issues, but I agree that he has identified some of the most important and glaring issues that we have. Absolutely.”

According to the Kansas Legislative Research Department, there are more than 6,200 children in the foster care system in our state – a number that’s expected to rise over the next two years (the estimates for fiscal years 2018 and 2019 are 6,483 and 6,665, respectively). Over the past five years, the number of foster children in Kansas has surged by 33 percent.

Some lawmakers have asked whether the dramatic rise in opioid addiction is having an impact on the population of foster children – which rose in 35 states between 2012 and 2015. According to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, opioid overdose deaths climbed by 28 percent from 2013 to 2015, while deaths involving the abuse of heroin, psychostimulants and benzodiazepines exploded by 71 percent over the same period. Our state ranks 16th in the country for opioid prescriptions – 256 million Schedule II-IV pills were distributed to Kansans in 2014 alone.

From 2012 to 2017, the number of children removed from Kansas homes due to alcohol or drug abuse increased from 1,302 (36 percent of the total) to 1,852 (46 percent).

Wine also mentioned the importance of expanding mental health services in the state. When Saint Francis Community Services and KVC Health Systems recently informed the task force that 100 children had been forced to spend the night in offices over the past year, we criticized the state for failing to prevent this from happening. However, it’s important to remember that many of these children had behavioral issues that made placing them difficult. Some were sexually aggressive, while others exhibited violent or suicidal tendencies. This underlines the critical need for mental health resources as the number of kids in foster care continues to increase.

Christie Appelhanz is the executive director of Children’s Alliance of Kansas, and she says there were 17 mental health facilities with 780 beds for foster children in 2011 – numbers that have fallen to eight and 272.

This year, Kansas passed a juvenile justice reform bill to reduce the number of low-level offenders being placed in detention facilities and other out-of-home settings, many of whom have mental health conditions that aren’t being adequately treated. Task force member Rep. Linda Gallagher points out that juvenile detention “wasn’t the right place for them,” but also notes that there “just aren’t enough community mental health resources to deal with these troubled kids.” While the juvenile justice bill was a significant achievement, state officials should have been better prepared to handle the kids who were transferred from correctional facilities to foster care.

From widespread drug abuse to inadequate mental health care, it’s crucial to address the underlying causes of our state’s foster care crisis. We’re eagerly awaiting the task force’s first report in January.

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The Kansas City Star, Nov. 19

Susan Wagle is way off base when it comes to Kansas school funding

What’s Susan Wagle thinking these days?

The president of the Kansas Senate declared the other day that the state Supreme Court had deliberately timed an October school-finance order to help elect a Democratic governor next year.

“Why would the court deliver us this timing?” Wagle told a Wichita audience. “Do you think that maybe they would like to elect a Democrat governor so they can have more Democrat appointees to the Supreme Court?”

Never mind the obvious conclusion that this kind of sentiment is wholly unhelpful at a time when lawmakers are faced with the possibility of spending several hundred million dollars more next year to satisfy the order. No question the ruling could have a sharp impact on next year’s elections.

But if anything, votes to raise taxes in the 2018 session will come from responsible Democrats and moderate Republicans who would be the ones to pay a price at the polls. Conservative Republicans — the camp where Wagle resides — might actually benefit.

What Wagle is up to is an ongoing conservative crusade to build support for a favored cause: a constitutional amendment aimed at ending the requirement that the Legislature provide “suitable” school funding. That means, apparently, that she prefers a Constitution that calls for “ill-suited” education appropriations.

Let’s be clear: This campaign for a constitutional change is going nowhere. Kansas’ rich heritage of quality public schools binds people of all political persuasions. What’s more, changing the constitution would require a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate (which won’t happen) and a vote of the people (which wouldn’t happen either).

Wagle told her audience that the court’s latest ruling is “absolutely unaffordable” and even unobtainable. To be sure, the cost could be as much as $600 million, on top of the $485 million over two years that lawmakers just tossed into the education kitty at the court’s behest.

But the numbers don’t lie: Kansas has been underfunding its schools for years.

The court’s ruling was unanimous. It’s also only fair to point out that Wagle wasn’t complaining in 2012 when Brownback signed tax cuts that were to cost the treasury $2.9 billion over five years.

Wagle said it would immoral for her to vote for a tax increase for additional school funding when other state services are hurting. But Wagle herself this year proposed a 2 percent across-the-board cut in spending, which her fellow senators rejected.

Wagle and other Kansas leaders must face the constitutional reality that another boost in school spending must occur, as contrary it may be to their conservative principles.

Earth to Wagle: Wake up.

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Lawrence Journal-World, Nov. 16

Police should release video

The September shooting of a man by Topeka police underscores the problem created by the unrivaled lack of transparency in Kansas when it comes to law enforcement records.

A Topeka police officer shot and killed Dominique White, who is black, during an incident on Sept. 28 at Ripley Park in Topeka. Police say White resisted arrest, tried to flee and was reaching for a gun in his pocket when police shot and killed him. Topeka police reported that White was shot in the chest; his death certificate indicates he was shot in the back. The Lawrence Police Department is investigating.

To the growing frustration of White’s family and many in the Topeka community, that’s the extent of the information available. Neither the Topeka Police nor Lawrence Police are offering much more.

Topeka police were wearing body cameras during the shooting. One would think Topeka Police would make the video public, sharing it as widely as possible, to support what they say happened.

Instead, Topeka police have gone to great lengths to keep the video private. After initially agreeing to show the video to White’s parents, the police have reversed course, saying Kansas law only requires them to share the video with White’s children. White has four children, ages 3 to 13.

Police are right, thanks to a bungled law Kansas legislators approved last year. That law designates police videos as criminal investigation records, which are exempt from the Kansas Open Records Act. The new law did make videos available to a limited number of individuals: the subject of the video, parents when the subject of the video is younger than 18, an attorney for the subject of the video or the subject’s heirs when the subject is deceased.

So, Topeka police, who have the discretion to share the video with anyone they choose, have decided that the right approach is to allow White’s four children to watch their dad being shot without other family members present.

The law wasn’t intended to be this way. State Sen. David Haley introduced a bill in 2015 that would have made body cameras standard for all police departments and made the footage a matter of public record. Haley was seeking transparency, for the benefit of law enforcement as well as the public. But law enforcement lobbied against the bill, and by the time legislation was approved last year, it looked nothing like what Haley proposed.

That happens a lot in Topeka. It’s why Kansas was the last state in the country to open search affidavits to public inspection, and then only after a number of loopholes were added. It’s why law enforcement officer records are exempted from open records law. It’s why a Linwood couple still can’t get copies of the police records related to the disappearance of their son 30 years ago.

The Kansas Legislature does law enforcement no favors by always bowing to pressure to keep police records secret. Because every time police handle a case like Dominique White’s death the way Topeka police have, the public can’t help but wonder “what have they got to hide?”