Some sunshine peaks through the clouds

May 2, 2018

Shown (from left) prior to the bill signing ceremony May 10 were Doug Anstaett, Mike Kautsch, Gov. Jeff Colyer, Ron Keefover, Max Kautsch and Kent Cornish.

By Sherman Smith, Topeka Capital-Journal

As the prospect of inclement weather swirled among clouds gathering Tuesday outside the Statehouse, senators hailed the beams of light they were casting toward shadows in state government.

They gave unanimous approval to legislation involving the release of police body camera video and information about the deaths of children who are in state care. The bill also requires agencies to notify people if their personal information is shared, and to provide a free year of credit monitoring.

“You know,” said Sen. Molly Baumgardner, R-Louisburg, “we look outside the windows and it looks a little cloudy, but I’m going to say that today is a sunshine day.”

“We are opening those windows and the sun is shining in in three different areas,” she added. “Yep, I’m talking about Kansas open records.”

The bill, which the House previously passed without opposition, now goes to Gov. Jeff Colyer’s desk.

Under the legislation, law enforcement agencies would have to turn over video after a shooting death within 20 days of a request made by an heir of the person who died. The heir may include a spouse or parent.

Those changes would apply to situations like the one in Topeka last year after police officers Justin Mackey and Michael Cruse shot and killed Dominique White as he ran away from them. The city refused to show the officers’ body camera video to White’s family until an executor of his estate was appointed through court proceedings nearly three months after the shooting.

“But let’s revel for a minute, as (Baumgardner) said, in the sunshine we have, knowing that it could be and has been drastically cloudier and more opaque in years past,” Haley said. “The combination before us is a tremendous step for us in better transparency.”Sen. David Haley, D-Kansas City, Kan., said the changes are an improvement, but they don’t entirely satisfy the “questions that many Kansans and many people in this country have about taxpayer supported surveillance.” Some want to see more immediate availability, he said.

Changes to the code for children in need of care will require the Kansas Department for Children and Families to release within seven days information about the abuse and neglect of a child who has died.

That information includes a summary of previous reports of abuse or neglect for the child, as well as any DCF recommendations.

“We need to know what is happening to our children,” Baumgardner said.

Earlier this year, a former DCF official said the agency systematically underreports child fatalities and provides inaccurate information to the state’s Child Death Review Board.

Documents released last year revealed the agency knew about allegations of physical abuse and drug use in the home of Adrian Jones, whose remains were found in a pigsty in November 2015.

The boy’s grandmother, Judy Conway, fought for more than a year to get copies of his DCF records.

“It was a very stressful time wondering every day how and if the system that is in place to protect Adrian had failed him,” Conway said. “Turned out DCF failed him on so many levels.”

She said she hopes the new legislation will allow families to get answers sooner. The bill’s passage, she said, “makes me both happy and sad: Happy that DCF is making strides to be more transparent, and sad that it took the deaths of children in Kansas to make DCF more accountable and transparent.”

DCF secretary Gina Meier-Hummel said the agency reviews a child’s history following a death and determines whether steps can be taken to prevent tragedy.

“Toward the goals of transparency and accountability,” Meier-Hummel said, “it’s also important that the public and those affected are made aware of the agency’s involvement and response to protect these innocent victims.”