Government & Politics

New DCF leader pledges to let Kansans ‘hear the rest of the story’ on child deaths

Gina Meier-Hummel, secretary of the Department for Children and Families in Kansas
Gina Meier-Hummel, secretary of the Department for Children and Families in Kansas

The new leader of Kansas’ child welfare system said Monday that her administration will propose a legislative change so more information is released after a child’s death or serious injury.

Gina Meier-Hummel, secretary of the Department for Children and Families, said her administration is working with attorneys on what wording needs to change in the current law to allow for additional transparency.

People will be able to “hear the rest of the story as it pertains to the work we do with Kansas families,” Meier-Hummel said.

Her department is still reviewing the proposed changes, she said, but “hopes to introduce these changes as soon as possible.”

After several high-profile child deaths in recent years, The Star has pressed for information to understand what involvement DCF had with the families and what measures were taken to try to protect the child. Advocates and lawmakers have said information is needed in order to know what went wrong and what needs to change.

Her push for the department to be more open also comes after a recent Star investigation exposed widespread secrecy within Kansas government. The Star found a pervasive effort inside DCF to avoid transparency, hiding behind privacy laws and internal procedures — even instructing employees to shred notes taken in meetings where the death of a child was discussed.

When Adrian Jones, a 7-year-old boy from Kansas City, Kan., was tortured and his body fed to pigs, it took 1  1/2 years to get records in his case that showed he had extensive contact with social workers in Kansas and Missouri.

“I think we should know that information right away,” said Judy Conway, Adrian’s maternal grandmother. “Having to wait a year and a half for answers only added to the stress level.”

Meier-Hummel and Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer also said Monday that Gov. Sam Brownback’s budget proposal boosts spending to the DCF by more than $16 million in federal and state funds over the next two years after sharp criticism of the state’s foster care system.

The Legislature must approve the new spending.

Rep. Linda Gallagher, a Lenexa Republican, said she was encouraged but she wanted to know more about the changes Meier-Hummel will propose.

“I think that would be welcomed to open it up for public scrutiny so that we can learn from what happened in each case where a child died in the welfare system and learn what can be done to prevent any more deaths,” Gallagher said.

The Kansas Legislature in 2004 passed a law saying that records should be released “in the event that child abuse or neglect results in a child fatality or near fatality.”

But a provision put in place as a compromise to get the law passed has led judges in many instances to seal records in those critical cases.

Lori Ross, a long-time Missouri advocate who has gone to Topeka several times demanding change, said she was optimistic about Meier-Hummel’s proposal.

“Again, like everything she’s said so far, that’s a move in the right direction for sure,” Ross said. “We need to know that information. If you don’t review those cases, you don’t find the root cause. And root causes point to systemic issues that need to be addressed.”

House Majority Leader Don Hineman, a Dighton Republican, said “any light that we can shine on the activities within the department and within the foster children system will be good.”

But, Hineman said, the key is to also protect the privacy rights of individuals.

On Monday, leaders addressed the need for more funding to help care for the state’s most vulnerable children.

Under Brownback’s budget proposal, which will be unveiled Wednesday, Kansas would have additional funds to pay for emergency foster care and for more investigators to look for missing children.

Lawmakers expressed anger last fall over revelations that some children were sleeping in offices because no foster care was immediately available. They also learned that more than 70 children were missing from the foster care system. The number remains at about 70.

The budget proposal includes:

▪ $6.55 million in new funding for community-based family preservation services;

▪ $1.5 million to hire 20 additional child welfare staff;

▪ $755,000 on reserve beds and emergency placements for children in foster care;

▪ $500,000 on fingerprinting and background checks;

▪ $225,000 to hire additional investigate staff.

The proposal also includes funding to use an outside vendor to assist with a review of the agency and a new tool to improve assessments of reports of abuse and neglect.

“DCF is charged with protecting our most vulnerable Kansans,” Colyer said. “And our goal with our budget was to make sure we have the resources needed to take care of the issues that we see.”

(FILE VIDEO - 2017) Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer named Gina Meier-Hummel as the new leader for Kansas' Department for Children and Families in November. She said she planned to conduct a top-to-bottom review and demand accountability inside the system.

Hunter Woodall: 785-354-1388, @HunterMw

Laura Bauer: 816-234-4944, @kclaurab

Jonathan Shorman: 785-296-3006, @jonshorman