A bipartisan sense of dread followed disclosure that the Kansas Department for Children and Families lost track of dozens of foster care children and allowed contractors to let kids sleep in office buildings.
It escalated to horror when abused or neglected children within the state’s grasp ended up dead.
Gov.-elect Laura Kelly and Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature intend to make reform at DCF a front-burner priority when the session begins Monday.
“We’ve all heard the stories about what’s happened at DCF over the last several years,” said Rep. Blaine Finch, an Ottawa Republican. “Not only is it a priority I think for the new administration, but it’s a priority for us as House members. How do we provide safety and security for the most vulnerable people, our young people, and make sure they’re taken care of?”
The Legislature authorized an inquiry by the Child Welfare Task Force, which recommended a increase in the state’s child welfare workforce, creation of an online case management system for use by DCF and other agencies, improved child access to medical and behavioral health care, and implementation of a federally designed family preservation program.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, said the state made a mistake decades ago by privatizing foster care. It undermined accountability by putting distance between children and elected officials responsible for public policy, he said.
“Foster care is a major issue,” said Hensley, who doesn’t expect lawmakers to reverse privatization. “It’s been proven we’ve got some serious problems.”
In December, DCF Secretary Gina Meier-Hummel awarded grants -- not contracts -- to a handful of organizations for operation of the state’s foster care, adoption and family preservation services. DCF’s recipients of the four-year grants scheduled to start July 1 weren’t vetted by the Kansas Department of Administration.
Kelly, in an unusually strong rebuke, asked Gov. Jeff Colyer to suspend the grant program pending her review. DCF complied with Kelly’s request.
“This is a challenging time for the Department for Children and Families,” Kelly said. “We’ve seen the agency dismantled by ideology and mismanagement.”
Legislators and advocates are interested in other avenues to improving the lives of at-risk children.
More than 600 students have been served so far in a one-year, $10 million mental health pilot program initiated by the Legislature. Nine districts, including Topeka and Garden City, partnered with community mental health centers.
Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, said children benefit from addressing substance abuse among parents. She said first-time offenders ought to be in treatment rather than jail.
“A lot of the kids in DCF have a parent who is addicted to drugs. It’s a huge problem in our society,” Wagle said.
Annie McKay, president of Kansas Action for Children, said Kansas could build a more promising future for children by investing in high-quality early childhood learning.
“If you don’t have a plan for kids, you don’t have a plan for Kansas,” McKay said.