Gov. Jeff Colyer and the leader of the state’s child welfare agency are pushing for a change in state law that would give the public more information after a child dies of abuse and neglect in Kansas.
In an interview with The Star on Monday, the two said they are backing a bill that would open to the public some information after a death — including what services the agency provided.
“We have seen far too many children killed at the hands of their caregivers, acts that can be described as nothing short of evil,” Colyer said. “The public often asks how something like this can happen, and although this legislation may not fully answer that, it will help Kansans learn about steps that may or may not have been taken to save a child’s life.
“I think that that information allows us to see accountability and to embrace that accountability.”
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Gina Meier-Hummel, who took over as secretary of the Kansas Department for Children and Families in December, said it’s important that the agency be able to tell the public what social workers and other staff did, or did not do, in a case.
“We do want to be able to say what our involvement has been with the family so that folks know that we’re doing our job or maybe, yes, there’s more questions to be answered as soon as we can answer them,” she said. “But it’ll at least tell more of the story.”
This is the second time in a week that Colyer has stepped up to foster more transparency in Topeka. On Thursday, he signed four executive orders that would make state agencies more open for citizens and make it easier to obtain public records.
Now comes improving a troubled child welfare system that has been under intense scrutiny after several high-profile deaths of Kansas children, including Adrian Jones, the Kansas City, Kan., 7-year-old whose body was fed to pigs.
In a months-long investigation into the secrecy that permeates Kansas government and how it harms residents, The Star found a pervasive effort inside DCF to hide behind privacy laws and internal procedures to keep the public from knowing how it operates. Those practices are particularly acute in cases where children are seriously injured or killed by parents and guardians who were known to the agency.
Before Meier-Hummel took over, DCF had refused for more than a year to answer questions on topics ranging from open records and the deaths of specific children to runaways in foster care. During the course of The Star’s reporting on widespread problems within the agency, DCF Secretary Phyllis Gilmore announced her retirement effective Dec. 1.
The new legislative proposal, HB 2728, says that after a child dies from abuse or neglect the DCF secretary shall release the age and sex of the child, date of the fatality, a summary of previous reports to the agency and findings, as well as any department recommendations of services provided.
Rep. Blaine Finch, the Ottawa Republican who leads the House Judiciary committee where the bill is awaiting a hearing, said he had yet to read it.
“But if it moves us in a direction of helping those records to be open and correcting issues so that all children are kept safer, then I would be in favor of that,” he said.
Rep. Louis Ruiz, a Kansas City, Kan., Democrat, said the proposal is “a good bill.”
“I think it should be mandatory for them to report it, and have the data,” he said.
The agency has discretion to release some basic information now, but in many cases during the past several years officials have not.
Child welfare systems are meant to be private to protect intimate information about a child and his or her siblings — details such as their medical history and the sometimes-toxic environments they live in.
But when tragedies occur, reviewing what workers and the system did can be vital to making improvements and creating best practices. That’s why more than 30 states have adopted laws allowing some disclosure after a child dies or is seriously injured.
On paper, the current Kansas law — which the Legislature passed in 2004 — appears to be among the most transparent in the country. But a compromise made to get the law passed has been an obstacle in information becoming public.
In the end, the law included a provision that says any “affected individual” should be notified when a request for records is received. Within seven days, those individuals can ask the court to keep the records sealed. A judge then rules on the motion.
Among the affected individuals? Prosecutors, law enforcement officers and the DCF secretary all can ask the court to keep records closed, as can the parent who allegedly abused or neglected the child or knew what was going on.
In many cases where information is requested, a petition is filed with the court and judges often keep the information sealed.
If the new proposal becomes law, limited information, which includes when abuse was reported and the findings of that complaint, would be released. The public would still have to wait for complete records in the case.
“It may not answer everyone’s questions right away,” Meier-Hummel said. “But it certainly gets some additional information known right away to the public. Again, you want to allow the process to work.”
DCF could not discuss, for example, if the courts or law enforcement were involved and certain decisions were made. It could only discuss what the child welfare agency did, Meier-Hummel said.
“We want accountability for ourselves and the public deserves to know what’s gone on and what we’ve done,” she said. “We will not be talking about what the court system did or didn’t do or what law enforcement did or didn’t do, just what we did or didn’t do.”
House Majority Leader Don Hineman, a Dighton Republican, said transparency is good as long as due process and the right to personal privacy is kept in mind.
“If they’re confident that those aren’t in jeopardy with this proposal,” he said, “then I’ll take a serious look at it.”
Officials say there is support from both parties for the proposal.
“Everybody wants to know that the agency is working on behalf of Kansas children and families,” Meier-Hummel said. “And that we are doing anything we can to fix anything that may need to be fixed, strengthen anything that may need to be strengthened.
“We want the public to have faith in the work that we do and this is one step closer to being able to share that story.”