Members of a task force meeting on child welfare issues Tuesday had just about completed their morning session when a state senator had one more question.
“I think everybody in this room is fully aware of The Kansas City Star article coming out on transparency,” said Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat. “And one of the issues that came up in there was the shredding of notes from meetings in DCF (the Department for Children and Families).
“Is there anybody here from DCF who can respond to that allegation?”
The crowded hearing room in the state Capitol was silent. At one point, an official who was speaking for the department looked behind him, appearing to seek input from other DCF staff.
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“Is that a no comment?” Kelly asked.
“Yeah,” the official said. Approached seconds after the hearing broke for lunch, he again said he had no comment.
During the break, Kelly said that although DCF Secretary Phyllis Gilmore wasn’t at the hearing, she did expect someone from the agency to answer the question.
“I just wanted them to have the opportunity to go on record and clearly I think they reinforced what The Kansas City Star article said, and that’s that there is no transparency in this agency.”
The hearing came one day after The Star’s story on a lack of transparency inside DCF. Part of a series on secrecy in Kansas government and how it hurts citizens, the report included comments from Dianne Keech, a former DCF deputy director who said she was instructed to shred notes taken in meetings where the death of a child was discussed. Keech left the department in 2015 after two years.
Also in the morning session, two Kansas judges told the task force members they were concerned about staffing in the child welfare system, heavy caseloads, communication problems and delayed reports from contractors.
After the break, the department issued the following statement regarding Kelly’s question about The Star series:
“During Ms. Keeche’s (sic) time with the department, she claims the agency’s attorney directed staff to keep information from the public’s reach by shredding all notes. This is not an accurate statement. Ms. Keeche is likely referring to direction given to staff that they should not include personal notes in case files for incident review. A personal note, for example, would be thoughts or opinions that are not relevant to the case itself. This is not an effort to keep information from the public, but rather an effort to ensure the file only contains facts/observations pertinent to the case.”
Some legislators in the room said they weren’t surprised at the earlier no comment.
“It’s exactly what I predicted,” said Sen. Barbara Bollier, a Mission Hills Republican. “I knew when that question was asked that their answer would be a no answer.”
Nor were they surprised that Gilmore was not at the hearing.
“Getting information out of them is like pulling teeth,” said Rep. Jarrod Ousley, a Merriam Democrat. “… The crickets were loud. This is what’s become of the department. This is a hollowed-out department that is supposed to be looking out for the best interest of kids.”
Kelly wasn’t pleased with the timing of DCF’s statement.
“I was peeved that they came back after lunch when they knew the press wouldn’t be here, with that statement.
“They still have not answered my question. Have any social workers been instructed to shred their notes after a meeting? To me, it affirms what The Kansas City Star said, there is no transparency.
“I believe the woman who was quoted in The Kansas City Star.”
The Star’s Hunter Woodall contributed to this report.