Kelly names new child advocate

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Gov. Laura Kelly on Thursday named the managing attorney for Kansas Legal Services as the new child advocate.

Kelly tapped Kerrie Lonard to oversee the independent office that’s intended to protect Kansas children and families within the child welfare system.

The new office, created by executive order, is intended to provide independent oversight and greater accountability for public and private agencies involved in the child welfare system.

It will compile and accept complaints made on behalf of children within the welfare system and will review practices employed within the network.

Lonard will serve a five-year term and could be in that position longer if needed until a successor is appointed.

Neither the governor nor the Legislature can fire the advocate, and any effort to remove the person would have to follow an ouster procedure established in state law.

“We knew we would need a strong leader – someone who could take on the systemic challenges facing our state’s child welfare system,” Kelly said in a statement.

“As a former social worker and a long-time attorney in family law, Kerrie is imminently qualified to lead the Division of the Child Advocate,” Kelly said.

“She is committed to independence and transparency within the division, and has demonstrated her dedication to protecting our kids.”

Lonard has worked at Kansas Legal Services in Topeka for nearly 14 years, serving as both a staff attorney and managing attorney.

As managing attorney, she supervises staff in providing legal assistance to members of the public, often in areas of family law and child-in-need-of-care cases.

Jami Reever, executive director of Kansas Appleseed, called Lonard’s hiring the “culmination of years of work and advocacy to improve the foster care system in Kansas…”

“Lonard has built her career around advocating for Kansans, leading to a deep understanding of how the foster care system can work better for children and families,” Reever said in a statement.

“Her experiences demonstrate a commitment to justice and all those impacted by the foster care system,” Reever said.

Lonard worked as a school social worker for five years and in other foster care and child advocate roles.

During her career, she has taken on various leadership positions, including as the state coordinator for Kansas for the National Association of Counsel for Children.

She also served on the Kansas Supreme Court task force on permanency planning.

Lonard has a bachelor’s degree in social work from the University of Kansas, a master’s in social work from Washburn University and is a graduate of Washburn University School of Law.

Questions persist about how long the new office will last, given that the Legislature has tried – but failed – to create a similar office.

Republican lawmakers have already been questioning whether the governor properly reorganized state government without oversight when she created the position.

They have asked whether the executive order creating the office of child advocate should have been carried out through an executive reorganization order that requires legislative approval.

Republican Sen. Richard Hilderband, chair of the joint Committee on Child Welfare Oversight, asked legislative researchers and staff attorneys to determine whether the governor should have issued an executive reorganization order in the announced restructuring.

Hilderbrand said staff lawyers advised lawmakers that they could challenge the position in court, ask the attorney general for an opinion or pass new legislation codifying the office in law.

The committee ultimately agreed to ask the governor to rescind the executive order and issue an executive reorganization order that would be subject to approval of the Legislature.