Government & Politics

Troubled Kansas system for protecting kids was making progress. Then this happened

After months of headlines about missing runaways, foster children sleeping in offices and high-profile deaths, this was the last thing the Kansas Department for Children and Families wanted to see.

A 13-year-old in the state’s custody reportedly was raped inside a child welfare office in Olathe. And the young man charged with the assault earlier this month also was in Kansas’ care. Both were at the KVC Behavioral Healthcare office waiting to be placed in an available foster home or facility.

“It’s tragedies like that that folks have been deeply worried was going to happen,” said Benet Magnuson, executive director of Kansas Appleseed, a nonprofit justice center serving vulnerable and excluded Kansans. “It’s one of these moments: if this doesn’t shake us and get us to take action at the deep level that’s needed, I don’t know what will.”

The assault happened in early May, although it didn’t become public until last week after The Star had obtained police calls for service to the KVC office. It occurred just as DCF Secretary Gina Meier-Hummel and her administration were in the midst of making changes and implementing programs that some say are beginning to show success.

Despite those positive steps forward, Meier-Hummel found herself last week — yet again — picking up the pieces of a broken Kansas child welfare system.

In a lengthy interview with The Star, the DCF leader referred to the assault inside the KVC office as “horrible” and “awful” and said the lack of supervision was unacceptable.

She apologized, saying that even though it happened at KVC — one of two private contractors that provide child welfare services in Kansas — she’s in charge of the system and “I don’t think kids in our care should ever be hurt.”

She said she hopes that residents across Kansas see that DCF investigated the incident and took action, citing KVC for a violation. And that as egregious as the assault was, she has a plan to not only cut down on the number of kids staying in offices but to keep more families together and make DCF stronger.

“I think we all in the system feel disappointed this happened,” she said, sitting behind her desk in her downtown Topeka office. “But absolutely there are things going right. There is movement happening. It’s good movement.”

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“I’m frustrated that we couldn’t change children sleeping in offices quicker than we did,” said DCF Secretary Gina Meier-Hummel. “That’s ridiculous to me. We had to find providers, licensed providers.” File photo

When Meier-Hummel took over DCF on Dec. 1, there were 30 staff vacancies in the Wichita region. Those positions have been filled, the agency said. So have dozens of others across the state, in part because Meier-Hummel decided to hire unlicensed social workers to fill vacancies in the investigations division.

The system has added 150 residential beds in recent months, with at least another 50 expected by the end of the year. Only five kids, she said, stayed overnight in KVC offices since May 18 and workers are concentrating on keeping some children with their families and placing more with relatives.

“I’m a woman of faith,” Meier-Hummel said. “I believe that I was sent here for a very special purpose ... to make this system better, distinctively better for children and families. And yeah, we’re making real change.”

Lawmakers and child advocates across the state still express caution.

“I certainly am rooting for these reforms to work,” Magnuson said. “I hope that we see more progress than we’ve seen so far, unfortunately. “

Members of a legislative child welfare task force created to address problems within the system question why they weren’t told about the assault. A DCF spokeswoman said it hasn’t been practice to share daily critical incidents.

Also, officials said state law prohibits them from discussing an incident until in becomes public knowledge. That didn’t happen in this case until charges were filed, they said.

Still, task force members said that information would be good to know.

“Here we are trying to fix this system that just failed this 13-year-old and it isn’t brought to our attention?” said Rep. Jarrod Ousley, D-Merriam, a member of the task force.

Rep. Linda Gallagher, R-Lenexa, also is a member of the panel. She plans to talk with Meier-Hummel about why task force members weren’t informed.

But Gallagher also said she thinks the secretary and her staff are moving in the right direction. The recent assault only shows, Gallagher said, that there’s much more work to be done and that legislators have to own their part of the solution.

“An incident like this is definitely frustrating,” Gallagher said. “It’s not something any of us want, to have a child in custody of the child welfare system being attacked by another one. But I do know that some good things have been put in place.”

Meier-Hummel leans forward a bit in her chair and says she wants to be frank.

“We had a neglected system for a substantial time,” she said. “There had not been major investments in this agency and in this work for a very, very long time.”

And that had repercussions, she said. Some communities don’t have prevention services and don’t have enough resources. That puts families in need.

“Then more kids come into out-of-home care,” she said, “and that then causes a strain on the system.”

Ousley said it’s encouraging to hear a DCF leader willing to talk about what’s wrong with the system.

“At least there’s someone admitting we have a problem now — we didn’t have that before,” he said. “You’re never going to address a problem unless you admit we have one.

“I think a lot of things have been brought to light, that weren’t easily accessible to the public, since Gina took the helm.”

Lawmakers learned a year ago that because of a shortage of foster homes and residential beds, contractors had resorted to having kids — many of them with extreme needs and hard to place — sleep in offices overnight when needed.

“It’s callous that they started it in the first place,” said Lori Burns-Bucklew, a Kansas City attorney and accredited child welfare law specialist. “And once it started it became acceptable. It became normalized. It’s shocking.”

When Meier-Hummel took over she said the practice was “unacceptable” and that her administration would work to put an end to that practice. Today, she admits that has proven more difficult than initially thought.

From May 5 to mid-May, 41 youths stayed overnight in a KVC office. But since then, after Meier-Hummel increased oversight of KVC and her staff visited offices to make sure conditions were safe, only five have spent the night in an office.

“I’m frustrated that we couldn’t change children sleeping in offices quicker than we did,” she said. “That’s ridiculous to me. We had to find providers, licensed providers.”

On May 5, three children were at the KVC office waiting for placement. One worker was supervising the three.

“We were making phone calls to foster families and other placement options,” said Jenny Kutz, a KVC spokeswoman. “Many matches are made in the evening hours.”

At around 9 p.m., the 13-year-old reported the assault.

The worker, who had been with KVC for 2 1/2 years, left that teen and an 18-year-old alone for an estimated “five minutes or less,” Kutz said.

Michael Anthony Hamer — who was still in foster care at age 18, which the state law allows — was charged earlier this month with rape and aggravated indecent liberties with a child under 14. Soon after, The Star realized that his case matched a call for service at KVC on May 5 for sexual battery.

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Michael Anthony Hamer Johnson County Sheriff's Office

Lawmakers and advocates have questioned why it took four months for prosecutors to file charges.

Steve Howe, Johnson County District Attorney, said he could not talk about this specific case. But, generally speaking, the length of time it takes to file charges varies from case to case. In instances where a juvenile sexual assault victim is involved, it can take longer because, in part, an interview with the child advocacy center needs to be conducted and prosecutors may need to meet with the victim and family before charges are filed.

As for the assault, experts in child welfare insist that it isn’t enough to have just one worker supervise three youths.

“That should never be the case,” Burns-Bucklew said. “You always have to go to the bathroom or answer the phone.”

After the assault became public, KVC posted the news story on its Facebook page and said the agency was “saddened” by the incident.

“The safety of children and families is our utmost priority as our strong 48-year record attests,” said Chad Anderson, president of KVC Kansas. “We work hard to keep thousands of children and families safe 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. But if even one child in our care is harmed, we are deeply sorry and committed to doing everything in our power to assist with their healing process. “

One criticism of the Kansas system, and many state child welfare systems across the country, is that too many kids come into care. Keep kids with their families whenever possible, advocates often say. And concentrate on making that family stronger.

A long-time social worker herself, Meier-Hummel said she understands that.

“If kids can be raised safely with their families, they should be raised safely with their family,” Meier-Hummel said. “Government should not be involved in children and families’ lives unless there’s an extreme need.”

And this month, her staff has initiated an effort to try to keep families together when possible.

Risk Removal Staffing Teams include about eight staffers from across DCF, not just from the child welfare division.

Child welfare workers identify neglect cases where a child is at risk of entering the foster care system. The team then brainstorms what services could help the family and allow the child to stay in the home.

“We’re not leaving kids at risk,” Meier-Hummel said. “We are talking about putting real services in place to help families. We’re talking about, ‘Is there a community provider who we can connect with them? Is there someone who can be in there daily to help them?’

“So we are trying to mobilize the resources we have as an agency to help families.”

Since Sept. 5, teams have discussed 17 cases. In 14 of those, services were identified to strengthen the family and the children. Those children were able to stay in their homes.

“That’s encouraging,” Ousley said. “They just kept 14 families together that would have been taken apart. Who knows what trajectory they changed by not putting those kids in the system. ... But they have to do follow up.”

Burns-Bucklew said for these teams to work for the long-term the agency needs to gather data “very carefully and very honestly.”

“They need to constantly evaluate those homes,” Burns-Bucklew said. “And make sure they are giving them the supportive services to help things from re-occurring.”

Officials say workers will continue to have contact with the families who are provided services.

Meier-Hummel listened in on one of the recent team meetings. A child had been born positive for drugs and the mother continued to use. Typically, that can be a reason to remove.

“Someone immediately said, ‘I know where we can call to see if we can get a bed,” Meier-Hummel said. And the baby would have been able to stay with the mother.

In this case, the mother declined the treatment and the infant was taken into care. But for the DCF leader, it was encouraging to see that her staff looked for a solution and reached out to try to keep a family intact.

“We are making changes,” Meier-Hummel said. “We are absolutely making changes that will have major impact on improving the system. We’ve seen it already and will continue to see it.

“I believe, given time, the system will be substantially different in the future.”