TOPEKA — On Tuesday, the new secretary at the Kansas Department for Children and Families promised a legislative task force studying weakness in the state’s foster care system a thorough top-to-bottom review of internal and contracting operations with an emphasis on improving public transparency.
“Peeling back the layers, if you will. What’s working. What’s not working,” said Secretary Gina Meier-Hummel. “We will be an agency of compassion and experts, and we will be gracious.”
Meier-Hummel, who was a member of the task force when hired as secretary Dec. 1, took over an agency denounced for its response to problems in the foster care system. DCF is responsible for programs tied to children, as well as welfare.
For years, questions have been posed about whether DCF could do more to prevent deaths of children in contact with the agency. Meier-Hummel said the agency would review each fatality in search of lessons useful in avoiding future tragedy.
“I absolutely believe you have to reflect on what happened in the past to make sure that we don’t repeat things. The safety net is more than just one policy or program,” Meier-Hummel said.
Questions also have been posed to DCF about foster care contractors allowing children to sleep on the floor of office buildings when home placements couldn’t be found. Meier-Hummel said DCF was working with contractors to boost the number of residential beds available to foster children.
In addition, DCF has been challenged to do a better job tracking children who leave their assigned foster care home without permission. On Tuesday, DCF was searching for 79 children considered absent without leave. Sixty-five were categorized as runaways. One parent is thought to have left the country with a child.
“One child away from placement is one too many. I want you to be assured that we have staff right now, really great staff, attending to this need,” Meier-Hummel said.
During an October meeting of the foster care task force, legislators expressed dismay that then-DCF Secretary Phyllis Gilmore wasn’t aware three sisters from Tonganoxie had bolted from their foster care placement. The sisters subsequently were located by law enforcement.
Meier-Hummel was chosen by Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer to replace Gilmore, who was lauded by Gov. Sam Brownback at announcement of her retirement. Gilmore was condemned by Republican and Democratic legislators who demanded her firing.
Meier-Hummel started her career as a social worker in Topeka. She was employed for approximately 14 years at KVC Behavioral Healthcare, one of the state’s two contractors for foster care. She was employed at DCF until 2015, including a stint as commissioner of child welfare. She was managing a children’s crisis intervention center in Lawrence when selected by Colyer to take over DCF.
She said DCF would be scrutinizing adherence to state contracts with providers of foster care services. Task force members have asked about applying financial pressure on the organizations to meet contractual obligations.
“The only time in the history of the organization that we’ve issued claw backs was when I was child welfare director,” Meier-Hummel said.
In 2012, she ordered four contractors to pay a combined penalty of $215,000 for failure to abide by DCF contracts. She said DCF was in the process of auditing a contractor.
“I’m here to tell you if you sign a contract with us, you will do what you’re supposed to do and we will do what we’re supposed to do,” she said.