Private contractors are preparing to take over operations of the Kansas child support system in the coming weeks even as questions remain about how the contracts were awarded.
Three private companies were given contracts to cover 30 of the state's 31 judicial districts, with the remaining district retaining control of Sedgwick County judicial district with a 5-year, $14.8 million contract.
Department for Children and Family Services employees who were stationed in court trustee offices statewide will either be laid off or try to get a job with the new private contractors, the Topeka Capital-Journal reported.
The contractors will help residents apply for public assistance, establish paternity, locate parents and obtain court orders to collect child support. Private contractors already were often being hired to collect on child support orders.
Contracts were awarded in June on a competitive bid process, though Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, said one contractor seemed to have an inside connection to landing the contracts.
Mississippi-based YoungWilliams Child Support Services will control 23 judicial districts covering 70 counties, a bid worth $48.2 million over five years. Veritas HHS of Colorado will operate the Wyandotte County office for $8.7 million, and Kansas attorney Lee Fisher will cover six districts spanning 33 rural counties for $3.2 million.
Hensley questions the legitimacy of the YoungWilliams' contract, noting that CEO Robert Wells and his wife donated to Republican Gov. Sam Brownback's campaign in 2010. And former employee Trisha Thomas is in a leadership position with the DCF's child support division.
"I'm still convinced this was an insider's deal," Hensley said.
DCF spokeswoman Theresa Freed, however, said the concerns were unfounded, and Thomas had no role in awarding the contract to YoungWilliams.
Freed said YoungWilliams has had Kansas contracts dating to Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius' administration. Sebelius is now secretary of Health and Human Services under President Barack Obama.
She also says those who provide child support services are part of a small industry that has close ties to government.
"The child support community nationwide is small," Freed said in an email to the Capital-Journal. "Every bidder, with the exception of one, had worked in Kansas during the past year."
Hensley also said that, based on information he received from a state employee, the state's child support operations were set up to fail because of understaffing and changes in bureaucracy.
Rebecca Proctor, attorney for the Kansas Organization of State Employees, said DCF employees were being disciplined for speaking out about the contracts.
"KOSE is exploring alternate avenues for bringing privatization information forward without spotlighting individual employees as the source of that information," Proctor said.
DCF Secretary Phyllis Gilmore said the changes could lead to $52 million more being collected annually in child support in Kansas through "increased efficiencies." The annual average has been $200 million.