The governor and top legislative leaders agreed Monday to settle for $75,000 a child-death lawsuit filed against the Kansas Department for Children and Families after the agency failed to intervene based on allegations an 18-month-old girl was physically abused and living in a drug house.
The child's father, Steven Watters, filed suit against DCF, the agency responsible for investigating child abuse, after Jayla Haag died in 2012 from blunt-force injuries to the head. The El Dorado girl lived with her mother, Alyssa Haag. The toddler suffered from brain swelling, knocked out teeth, jaw damage and bleeding around the eyes. The child also tested positive for methamphetamine at birth and before her death.
DCF allegedly ignored warning signs, Watters said, including calls to a child-abuse hotline. His suit also asserted a DCF social worker was aware of the mother's persistent use of illegal drugs in the home.
Members of the State Finance Council met at the Capitol in executive session with representatives of Attorney General Derek Schmidt to discuss the case filed in Sedgwick County District Court. After reconvening in public, none of the lawmakers commented before unanimously voting to approve the deal.
The lawsuit draws to a close as Gov.-elect Laura Kelly, a Democrat who takes office in January, promised to reform DCF. The agency has been operated for nearly eight years by appointees of Govs. Jeff Colyer and Sam Brownback.
Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, said in an interview the 2019 Legislature ought to closely examine DCF operations. She said years of assurances from DCF turned out to be hollow, but she praised DCF Secretary Gina Meier-Hummel, who was hired by Colyer after the resignation of long-time Secretary Phyllis Gilmore in December 2017.
"A child died," Wagle said. "As a result of that death, DCF policy has changed. The way they handle these cases was changed. It was a horrific case. Something I'm ashamed of, but as a result, with numerous people overseeing these court actions, I believe it won't happen again."
The death of Jayla Haag occurred under the leadership of Gilmore, who was the target of widespread criticism while running the agency.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, said Jayla Haag was "tortured" and that DCF social workers lost track of the girl within the DCF bureaucracy. Hensley said Democrats had attempted for years to bring greater scrutiny to DCF, but were rebuffed by Republicans intent on shielding GOP administrations.
On Friday, a coalition of advocacy groups filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of 7,600 Kansas foster children against Colyer, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment and the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services. The plaintiffs allege state officials failed to protect children in state custody from harm.
The filing indicated children in the state's foster care system faced extreme housing instability, with some moved more than 100 times, and deprived of mental health assessments and services.
Wagle said she was unfamiliar with the class action, while Hensley said he was optimistic that legal case would help provide a reform road map for state lawmakers.