Each morning, Gina Meier-Hummel gets an update on missing Kansas children.
They’re gone from foster care, the vast majority having run away. One day last week, the list of names had reached 74, with 68 of them verified runaways.
“Some of those kids are for sure in danger,” said Meier-Hummel, who on Dec. 1 took over as secretary of the Kansas Department for Children and Families. “I think there’s other kids that we’re not meeting their needs.”
Locating these missing kids is just one of the challenges she faces as she works to repair the troubled child welfare system she inherited. Meier-Hummel will have the title “acting secretary” until she is confirmed by the Senate.
The agency has been under scrutiny for the past year after high-profile deaths of children across Kansas and the revelation of the missing kids from foster care. DCF’s lack of transparency in addressing these issues was a main feature in last month’s Star series on secrecy in Kansas government.
After the series, child welfare advocates and lawmakers demanded change. Some candidates for governor said the findings were disturbing and added a need for transparency to their platforms.
As they consider changes, Meier-Hummel and other DCF officials are looking for guidance from consultants and advocates across the country, including in Missouri, where the child welfare system faced similar problems in 2003.
“In Missouri, it took very strong leadership from the governor’s office, legislative leadership and from the courts before systemic change was possible,” said Jeremy Lafaver, a former Missouri legislator and current lobbyist for child welfare issues in Kansas. “It’s going to take the same thing here in Kansas.”
New leadership and direction, some insist, is much more than just bringing in a new secretary.
“It won’t change a thing — not until you change the philosophy,” said Dianne Keech, a former DCF deputy director who left the agency in 2015 over concerns with transparency. “The injustice to children is so great. We’ve not seen the tip of the iceberg because they are so secretive. ... Nobody knows what is going on inside.”
Meier-Hummel vowed to create a transparent agency as soon as Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer introduced her as the new DCF secretary. She said her department would review child deaths in order to make improvements and would collaborate with lawmakers in an honest and forthright way.
Colyer said it is going to take a methodical approach and time to make all the changes needed. It’s not a situation, he said, where “let’s change a couple little things here, or change a couple of people.”
“What we’re already trying to do is change the culture there,” Colyer told The Star. “I want us to go top to bottom and that may involve people, but it certainly involves policy, programs, outcomes. … Transparency is important. We want to know what’s going on and we want people to know so that we get the best results.”
In her first few days, Meier-Hummel said she met with workers across departments and filled a couple of top spots in her administration with staffers who have institutional child welfare knowledge. She and her staff began to brainstorm with national advocacy groups and consultants to see what Kansas needs to do.
And she began to focus on runaway children missing from foster care, a problem that came to light in October.
“I really feel like if we do the right things for kids and families, and if we do the right things for those we serve, and if our goal is genuine in nature, the rest of it will fall into place,” Meier-Hummel said. “If we do what we say we’re going to do and we follow through and we communicate and we listen and we’re compassionate, public perception will change.
“At least that’s my hope.”
Learning from others
Fourteen years ago, Missouri found itself where Kansas is now.
A toddler had died at the hands of his foster father in a southwest Missouri home. After Dominic James’ death, state leaders — as well as lawmakers, advocates and judges — focused on how to fix the failing system.
Missouri’s story would be good for Meier-Hummel to know and study, said Lori Ross, a long-time Missouri advocate who has gone to Topeka several times to demand improvement.
“She needs to reach out to Steve Roling and go to him for advice,” Ross said. “He had a huge impact in making changes in Missouri. Changes that are still in place today.”
Roling, of Kansas City, was tapped to lead the Missouri agency in 2003. During his 1 1/2 years there, Roling visited more than 100 local child welfare offices. He implemented a monthly meeting with foster kids, eating pizza and discussing what worked — and didn’t — in the system. He also enlisted staff to help solve some of the lingering issues.
Among the improvements implemented during Roling’s tenure: Increased background checks for foster parents, a greater transparency after the death or serious injury of a child, more training for workers and changes to the hotline unit to improve how calls are triaged.
“The people who know the biggest problems are the people who face it every day,” Roling said. “When you hear over and over the same problem and same solution, maybe you ought to give it a try.”
Like Roling, Meier-Hummel began her career as a trained social worker. And like Missouri’s former Department of Social Services director, she said she knows the importance of listening.
“I remember the first time I removed a child from their home,” she said. “I remember the hurt the family experienced during that. I get the emotional part. I remember what it seemed like it felt for the family, what it felt like for me.”
In her first days, Meier-Hummel walked the halls inside the Topeka DCF building. She plans to visits smaller offices and the state’s two contractors in the near future.
Some staffers and front-line workers in Kansas have already shown concern about high caseloads and turnover. One big question they asked? How do you bring people into the field with the current public perception of the work?
“There was a lot of conversation about their needs and how we get them what they need,” Meier-Hummel said.
“I think one of the things that came across really clearly is the folks who do this work really have pride in their work. They come to the field, if you will, for the right reasons.”
As Meier-Hummel completes her first month on the job, Roling’s advice to her is to work with people to find out what needs to be done and start doing it. He worked closely with the governor’s office, lawmakers and judges — led by then Chief Justice Stephen Limbaugh — to make sure the system was serving Missouri kids better.
“It’s too important,” Roling said. “We all have one shot to grow up and many of these kids are in our hands during their formative years. We don’t have time to study and just contemplate. We’ve got to go.
“That sense of urgency is what drove me. Tomorrow isn’t good enough. Got to do it today.”
‘Reflect on what’s happened’
Already, DCF officials have begun a top-to-bottom review of the agency. They’ve reached out to advocates and consultants, lawmakers and families to make sure they understand what’s working in Kansas and what isn’t.
It isn’t clear yet how far back the review of child deaths will go, but Meier-Hummel said analyzing those cases is critical.
“I absolutely believe you have to reflect on what’s happened in the past in order to make sure that we don’t repeat things,” she said, “and that we are improving where we can.”
In the coming weeks, Meier-Hummel wants to map out the changes she envisions and then keep dashboards to track what is happening.
“What I hope to show is, ‘This is what we’re working on and this is our progress to date,’ ” she said. “I think it’s the only way transparency happens and I think the only way to win the public’s favor is to be forthright and honest.”
She is beginning that process with a legislative task force looking at child welfare issues. In mid-December, Meier-Hummel stood before that group, which she was a member of before her appointment, and said her staff is working toward change.
Sen. Laura Kelly, a task force member and outspoken critic of DCF in the past, said she’s already sensed a change in cooperation.
“I do trust her that she really wants to make a difference and will work closely with the task force,” said Kelly, a Democrat who recently announced her candidacy for Kansas governor. “I think she’s already started to develop the partnerships that she’s going to need to make things right.”
Sen. Vicki Schmidt, a Republican from Topeka, will take over as head of the child welfare task force in January. When asked if she thinks Meier-Hummel will be transparent, Schmidt said she expects that of every agency.
“I don’t like it when we hear one thing from the agency and then we hear the other side of the story that doesn’t match up with what the agency said,” Schmidt said. “We just need to know. We need to be problem solvers and not constantly putting out fires.”
The task force will continue to dissect problematic issues inside the system, but some members hope to see improvements in Topeka soon.
“We’ve explored a lot of things, brought attention to a lot of shortfalls,” said Rep. Jarrod Ousley, a Merriam Democrat. “It’s time to address at least what we have considered so far. … These kids need us and we’re still working on it. We will continue our work.”
Meier-Hummel said she felt like “I’m here for as long as I’m called to be here.”
“I have the goal of making our system the very best it can be in whatever time we’re given,” she said. “To some extent it causes us to work with a sense of urgency knowing we have the right system in place if in a year from now I’m gone.”