Government & Politics

Kansas child welfare leader says more money, employees needed to fix troubled system

Kansas' child welfare leader said Monday her agency needs an additional $24 million over three years to help fix a troubled system that has a shortage of workers and foster care beds across the state.

Gina Meier-Hummel, secretary of the Department for Children and Families, said in a news conference that the agency has made progress since she took over in December.

But, she said, in order to fix the troubled system she inherited she must have more state and federal money, including funds to improve computer technology and to pay for raises over the next three years for licensed staff and supervisors.

At the same time, however, Meier-Hummel said the state is having trouble attracting social workers and she plans to hire 200 unlicensed workers to investigate cases of abuse and neglect and perform other duties.

She said 30 percent of the agency's child protective services positions are vacant across the state. One of those positions has been vacant for as many as 500 days. That's why, she said, Kansas would have to resort to hiring unlicensed workers — with college degrees — which others states have done.

"While we would certainly prefer to have licensed social work staff doing the investigative work, we have been advertising and advertising positions for quite some time now, and we can't get many of those positions filled," Meier-Hummel said.

She said the decision won't compromise safety.

"I think it's more concerning to not have the positions filled," she said. "We're talking about having competent workers and trained workers, so it's better to have them than to have vacancies."

DCF officials say they don't need legislative approval to begin hiring unlicensed workers. In an email, a DCF spokeswoman said: "As soon as possible, we will begin staffing with unlicensed."

The agency has been under scrutiny for more than two years after high-profile deaths of children across Kansas and the revelations of children sleeping in offices and kids missing from foster care. DCF’s past lack of transparency in addressing these issues was a main feature in The Star's November series on secrecy in Kansas government.

After the series, child welfare advocates and lawmakers demanded change.

Advocates continue to worry about the safety of the state's most vulnerable children and about the scope of the problem.

And, after Monday's news conference, some worry that hiring unlicensed workers isn't the answer. At least not for investigations.

"Sounds like Phyllis Gilmore — isn't that what she proposed?" said Rep. Jarrod Ousley, D-Merriam, referring to Meier-Hummel's predecessor who retired last year amid controversy. "She wanted to hire unlicensed workers. ... I think lowering your standards is not what we're looking for."

An audit last April found that the state’s foster care contractors have difficulty employing enough workers. At that time, Gilmore said the standard was too high.

Kansas has required foster care workers to be licensed social workers, and they must hold a bachelor’s degree in social work. Gilmore said nearly every other state does not require licensure, and that a handful of states do not require social workers to have social work degrees, but instead degrees in related fields, such as psychology.

Ousley, who is on the task force working to improve Kansas' child welfare system, said workers who investigate abuse and neglect cases should be the most qualified. He said he fears unlicensed workers could end up sacrificing quality in investigations.

"We could miss crucial pieces to allow kids to slip through the cracks," Ousley said. "We need to have positions filled, but filled with people who are going to do the best job. And if that's licensed social workers, then we need to keep the licensure."

Added Rep. Linda Gallagher, R-Lenexa, another member of the task force who is concerned about hiring unlicensed workers:

"I would hope it would not endanger child safety, but I would much rather have well trained, licensed social workers doing that work."

Lori Ross, a long-time child advocate in Missouri, said some jobs in child welfare easily can be filled with unlicensed workers. But investigative positions, Ross said, should be filled with "the most seasoned and well-paid staff, instead of the entryway into social services."

"This is the position in which decision making is the most critical," Ross said. "If it is done well, lives are saved, families who need help receive help, and families who need referrals to other services receive those referrals. If it is done poorly, we end up with more dead or missing children."

Rep. Brenda Dietrich, R-Topeka, who serves on the House Children and Seniors committee, was supportive of Meier-Hummel's decision.

"I feel like she's identified a problem," Dietrich said. "She's found a solution and she is going to do her best to try and make that solution happen."

On Monday, The Star reported that the problem of children sleeping in offices has continued since Meier-Hummel took over DCF. The agency also still struggles to find missing children.

From Dec. 1 to April 11, 137 children spent at least one night sleeping in child welfare offices run by contractors KVC Health Systems and St. Francis Community Services, according to information the child welfare agency provided.

In Monday's news conference, Meier-Hummel said she's been in constant contact with both contractors about kids sleeping in offices. They've brainstormed ways to end the practice and continue to do so.

In order to get more placements, the agency has been recruiting more foster families and working to approve more relatives.

"We're in need of every kind of placement there is," Meier-Hummel said. "We are working with group home providers as well as some more high-end type of programs to help with the youth. We're looking all across the board to add additional beds."

DCF officials also say they continue to focus every day on the number of missing children. Last fall, lawmakers were stunned when they learned that 74 foster children couldn't be accounted for in Kansas, according to numbers provided by DCF.

As of Monday morning, before Meier-Hummel addressed the media, she received word that again, 74 children were missing from care. The majority are runaways.

She said she knows missing kids are in risky situations.

"We're doing real work to try and find these youth," she said. "We want them to be in placements, safe, so I want you to know that we're continuing to work on that. We feel good about the progress we've made but obviously, more efforts need to be continuing."

Meier-Hummel's request for an additional $24 million comes after Gov. Jeff Colyer proposed $16 million more over two years for DCF.

Ousley said he was glad to see the new secretary ask for more funding to help an agency that has been underfunded for years.

"I do think we are moving in the right direction," Ousley said. "Admitting you have a problem and asking for financial help is more than we had before."