TOPEKA — Gov.-elect Laura Kelly named a new leader for the state's troubled child welfare system on Thursday and asked the current administration to halt implementation of new grants for contractors running the Kansas foster care system that she assailed as effectively no-bid contracts.
Kelly accused the Department for Children and Families, currently led by Secretary Gina Meier-Hummel, of hampering Kelly's ability to gather information about the grants. In November, DCF announced it had awarded grants to contractors for foster care, family preservation and other child welfare services.
DCF moved to the new system this year after using contracts -- which went through the office of administration -- in the past. Kelly said she plans to review the legality of the grants and said they did not follow the state's official procurement process, which requires competitive bidding by default.
"The process in which these grantees were evaluated and selected has not been transparent," Kelly said. "Despite our best efforts during the transition, accurate and forthright information from current DCF leadership was hard to come by. In the coming months, our team will work to evaluate the current programs and contracts to determine the best path forward for our children and families."
Lori Ross, a long-time child advocate in Kansas and Missouri, applauded Kelly's decision. She said the governor elect has shown the "willingness to do the diligence necessary to assure kids' needs are at the forefront of the child welfare system."
Ross was among those critical of DCF's decision to move from contracts to grants when The Kansas City Star reported about it in the fall. The grant process wasn't transparent and neither was DCF leadership, she said.
"Because the grants weren't considered by a separate entity, the evaluations weren't neutral," Ross said. "It was all done inside DCF. ... When an agency awards its own grants, it may select who they want to do business with and not who is best for Kansas' kids and families.
Kelly also named Laura Howard as interim leader of both the Kansas Department for Children and Families and the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services. Howard was previously a regional administrator in a federal agency overseeing substance abuse and mental health services.
She is currently the director of the Public Management Center in the School of Public Affairs and Administration at the University of Kansas.
"Laura Howard is the perfect expert to lead DCF and KDADS at this challenging time," Kelly said. "She has a long history of building coalitions to better deliver services to vulnerable Kansans. Throughout her career, she's developed a reputation as an expert in state funded services and collaboration between agencies and organizations."
The selection of Howard means the departure of Meier-Hummel, who arrived to great fanfare from Gov. Jeff Colyer.
Meier-Hummel vowed to create a transparent agency as soon as then-Lt. Gov. Colyer introduced her as the new DCF secretary in the fall of 2017. She said her department would review child deaths in order to make improvements and would collaborate with lawmakers in an honest and forthright way.
She requested a top to bottom review and when the Annie E. Casey Foundation completed that, Meier-Hummel implemented more changes to address high caseloads and turnover.
In recent months, Meier-Hummel had declared multiple times that "I love my job" and hoped to continue doing it under the new administration.
In her announcement of Howard on Thursday, Kelly also said that the implementation of grants for foster care and family preservation would be delayed.
The Star reported in mid-November that DCF awarded a sizable grant to an embattled Florida nonprofit -- which struggled with similar child welfare issues as Kansas has -- to provide family preservation in three of the four regions of the state. Lawmakers and child advocates were irritated with the move and said Kansas kids weren't being well served.
At the time, officials with DCF pointed out that the out-of-state agency wasn't awarded the grant for foster care, but for family preservation. And, DCF said, the Florida nonprofit already provides some services in Kansas with "compassion and professionalism."
"Eckerd Connects Family Preservation award will serve children in the home, preventing the need for foster care placement," DCF spokeswoman Taylor Forrest-Crowell said in an earlier email. "Comparing their foster care services in Florida with their family preservation services in Kansas is not an equal or fair comparison because they will be serving Kansas children and families in a completely different way."
When concern grew over the switch to grants from contacts, and many declared the new process wasn't transparent, Meier-Hummel adamantly disagreed.
"I take great offense to that," she told The Kansas City Star.