A $75,000 payout to a Kansas father raises a host of questions about the state’s role in monitoring family breakdown. The payout asks even more fundamental questions about the state’s relationship to the individual, questions that neither the media nor the state seem prepared to ask.

In 2012, 18-month-old Jayla Michelle Haag Watters died a cruel death in the custody of her meth-addled mother and the mother’s inevitable boyfriend. Jayla’s biological father, Steven Watters, then sued the the Kansas Department for Children and Families (DCF) for failing to remove Jayla from the mother’s care.

Jayla Michelle Haag Watters

According to the Wichita Eagle, DCF tried to remove the child from the mother five months before Jayla died. The DCF claims that the Butler County Attorney’s Office blocked the move, arguing that the DCF lacked adequate evidence of endangerment.

The Eagle article and other media posts focus on the question of blame and who deserves the lion share of it, the DCF or the county attorney. Randy Rathbun, the Wichita lawyer representing Steven Watters, believes “the principal wrongdoer was the county attorney.” No matter. He sued DCF for the simple reason the county attorney was “absolutely immune from lawsuit.”

Not surprisingly, the relative innocence of DCF has not stopped the media from zeroing in on the social work agency. That reason is equally simple. DCF’s involvement offers the media one last whack at the Brownback pinata.

There are, however, questions the media should be asking but are not.  An uncomfortable one is why the state should pay the father for his daughter’s death. Rathbun believes the $75,000 is “not nearly enough considering her suffering,” but it was the child who suffered, not the father.

From a distance, it would seem that the father had at least as much responsibility for that child’s welfare as the state, but none of the reporters covering this case asks how it was that Steven Watters lost custody of his daughter.

The assumption, a troubling one, is that the state bears more responsibility for the child’s well being than the biological father. If the child lived in a state home, there would be a logic to Watters’s claim. But she did not. She was just one Kansas resident out of millions.

Governor-elect Laura Kelly suggests a need for additional funding so the DCF can better monitor cases like Jayla’s. What Kelly has not suggested is any attempt to discourage the kind of living arrangements that led to Jayla’s death.

The most at-risk children in America are those living with a mother and her boyfriend. If Kansas statistics reflect national ones, the number of children so endangered has tripled in just the last twenty years.

Keeping up with this unhappy trend will cost money. Before investing in a fix, the state owes it to its citizens to at least talk honestly about the problem.




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