TOPEKA — The House Judiciary Committee turned a hearing Tuesday on a transparency bill proposed by Gov. Jeff Colyer into an examination of anxiety about the state’s handling of high-profile child abuse cases.
Legislation endorsed by Colyer and Gina Meier-Hummel, secretary of the Kansas Department for Children and Families, would require release by DCF of basic information about child fatalities when the state had been engaged in an investigation of alleged neglect or abuse.
The disclosures under the Kansas Open Records Act would include a summary of previous reports of mistreatment, the department’s recommendation of services for a child, date of the fatality and the child’s age and gender.
“DCF is required to protect the privacy of families it serves,” she said. “The agency also understands the importance of sharing details, if any, regarding the agency’s involvement when the death of a child has occurred.”
A trio of open-government organizations endorsed House Bill 2728, while an attorney for the family of a deceased Wichita child said the measure was inadequate.
“I don’t think this bill goes nearly far enough,” said Rep. Vic Miller, D-Topeka.
Rep. Blaine Finch, an Ottawa Republican and chairman of the House committee, requested members stick to details of the reform bill and not delve into tragic incidents involving children and DCF. The House panel took no action on the bill.
“It’s not our job to oversee DCF,” Finch said.
Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita, asked Meier-Hummel whether DCF had stopped advising employees to obscure evidence of mistakes by the agency’s staff in computer files. Instead, he pointed to published reports indicating DCF employees were urged to talk on the phone about cases or to make handwritten notes that were later shredded. The strategy was designed to undermine attempts by plaintiffs’ lawyers to advance lawsuits against DCF.
“I want to know what has been done to stop it in the future,” he said.
Meier-Hummel said the practice of destroying documents no longer applied at DCF.
In response to an inquiry, the DCF secretary affirmed leadership at the agency had taken steps to reduce the potential that employees might adulterate reports in child-abuse cases to cover up errors. DCF admitted key documents were altered in the case of Evan Brewer, a Wichita boy found encased in concrete.
“We will not tolerate anything that is dishonest in any way,” said Meier-Hummel, who has fired two employees since taking over in December. That list includes the top regional director of DCF in Wichita.
Shayla Johnston, a Wichita attorney representing the Brewer family, said House Bill 2728 was a smoke-and-mirror attempt to obscure the state’s failure to prevent abuse-related deaths.
She said DCF was required to preserve confidentiality of abuse and neglect investigations, but the agency was permitted to make reasonable disclosures.
“If this new administration wants to prove its dedication to transparency, publicly order the release of Evan Brewer’s file to his father — without redaction of his own child’s name,” Johnston said.
Meier-Hummel, in regards to reports about DCF’s handling of child deaths in the past, said she believed the agency accurately reported deaths to a national database. The state is required to tabulate fatalities among children with whom the agency was working at the time of death.
There is no evidence the state’s child death review board has received inadequate or misleading information from DCF, she said.
Advocates for the bill included the Kansas Press Association, the Kansas Association of Broadcasters and the Kansas Sunshine Coalition for Open Government.
“We believe enactment of HB 2728 will shine much-needed light on a dangerously dark area involving child abuse victims in Kansas,” said Ron Keefover, president of the coalition.
Doug Anstaett, executive director of the Kansas Press Association, said too often state government officials opted for secrecy rather than transparency.
“When citizens are deprived of information,” he said, “they cannot judge the efficacy of the various state programs they help underwrite with their taxes. We need to begin chipping away at the wall that has been built between Kansans and their government.”