Government & Politics

Is Kansas’ new way of awarding grants to child welfare providers transparent enough?

New DCF secretary wants transparency, changes for children

(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.
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(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.

Amid concerns about the Kansas Department for Children and Families conducting business without enough oversight, Secretary Gina Meier-Hummel said Thursday: “I don’t know how we could be any more transparent.”

At issue is how DCF has changed the way it chooses providers — awarding grants instead of traditional contracts.

By not going through the contract process, which is overseen by the Department of Administration, DCF now has more control on who will get the money for foster care and family preservation services.

That raised eyebrows last month, when The Star revealed that an embattled Florida agency received a hefty child welfare grant from Kansas for family preservation services for three of Kansas’ four regions.

“There was never a rationale given as to why they were going with grants,” said Lori Ross, a longtime child advocate in Kansas and Missouri. “Only now is the cloud lifting. DCF is able to pick and choose who they do business with. They can avoid going through bids, the blind process.”

But on Thursday, flanked by three providers who soon will receive the four-year grants for foster care and family preservation, Meier-Hummel said the awarding of the grants, and the period leading up to that, has been the “most transparent process we have ever had.”

When asked later about the lack of openness some perceived, she said: “I take great offense to that.”

For decades, the state of Kansas has awarded child welfare contracts, soliciting bids through a process overseen by the Department of Administration. It operated under a strict set of guidelines that promoted competition and ensured accountability.

DCF announced in late May that the agency was changing the way it secured services for everything from foster care to adoption and family preservation. The agency, in some cases, would be opting for grants where the Department of Administration isn’t involved and the DCF leader has final say on who receives the money.

DCF acknowledged that the switch was “substantial” but insisted it would provide more oversight and accountability.

On Thursday, Meier-Hummel said under the grants, there would be regular contact with contractors to make sure they are providing the expected services.

Rep. Jarrod Ousley, D-Merriam, said he and others have wondered why the switch to grants was needed. He said DCF first said the move was to improve accountability and oversight. Then the agency said it was going with grants to bring the state into federal compliance.

“It’s hard to get a straight answer and that’s always a concern especially when kids’ lives are on the line,” said Ousley, who brought up this issue at a legislative task force meeting earlier this week.

Concern only intensified after Florida-based Eckerd Connects received the family preservation grant.

The Star reported last month that Eckerd had been under fire for months after it was discovered that foster children were sleeping in offices, a problem that has plagued the Kansas system for more than a year. 

According to media reports in Tampa, the state warned Eckerd Connects in June that if it didn’t come up with a corrective plan and adhere to it, the agency could lose its $77 million annual contract.

Meier-Hummel said Thursday that she and her administration were aware of the Florida headlines when Eckerd was chosen. The grant, she said, is not for foster care services.

“It’s a different service completely,” Meier-Hummel said. “I don’t see it as an issue at all. ... I think folks were uninformed about their history of serving Kansas.”

For the past several years, Eckerd has provided some child welfare services in Kansas through a partnership with the state Department of Corrections.

Kansas’ budget for family preservation services is about $10 million, but DCF has not yet provided to The Star how much of that would go to Eckerd.

Ellen Standlee, Kansas Programs Operations Director for Eckerd, said she’s lived in the state her whole life and has worked in child welfare for 27 years. She and her husband have also been foster parents in Kansas for nine years and she’s seen the system from many sides.

“I want to assure you and tell you that in Kansas we’re going to provide quality family preservation services,” Standlee said during Thursday’s news conference. “And I can tell you I understand why it is so important to do so.”

In picking the grant recipients for foster care and family preservation services, DCF has said that two internal teams “analyzed and blind-scored each bid submission off-site for three days at the end of August.”

The agency said it entered into negotiations with those who submitted proposals in September.

Transitions from the current services will start in January, with the new providers scheduled to begin serving Kansas children and families on July 1, according to DCF.

John Milburn, spokesman for the Department of Administration, said issuing grants “is more the exception than the rule.

“It’s not a very common practice,” he said. “Most everything we do is a bid process contract.”

The reason, he said, is that contracts tend to bring a high level of accountability to the process.

“Typically, when you go through the bid process and you run it through a request for proposals, you’re being more transparent, you’re being more open about it,” Milburn said. “And hopefully, in most cases you’re going to get multiple bids to provide those goods and services.”

Rochelle Chronister, a former legislator who from 1995 through October 1999 served as secretary of the state Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services — the former name for DCF — said the switch to grants raises concerns.

“The contracts are more transparent,” said Chronister, a Neodesha Republican. “You put them out there and hopefully have people in Kansas bid on them.”

Chronister also said she would be “very, very concerned about using companies out of Florida.

“All of our contractors were basically Kansas companies,” she said. “You have a better chance of knowing what’s going on with them. Somebody’s almost always bound to tell you if there’s something going wrong if it’s right in your home state.”

When she was SRS secretary, Chronister said, the agency worked jointly with Department of Administration on the contract process.

“They made sure the contracts were all legal and were done properly, and our responsibility was to see which sounded like it was the best and did what we wanted to get done,” she said.

Meier-Hummel said the state was already set up to move toward grants when she took over the agency in December 2017. She said she has made sure that the public was consulted and that everyone knew months in advance what would be happening. The grant process included a solicitation for bids and internal teams made up of a cross section of employees reviewed them, the secretary said.

Even when contracts are awarded, “the agency has always been the one to choose,” Meier-Hummel said. “So ultimately it was always the secretary’s decision who gets these grants and contracts ... it’s just that the paperwork went through the Department of Administration and it’s not now.”

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Laura Bauer came to The Star in 2005 after spending much of her life in southwest Missouri. She’s a member of the investigative team focusing on watchdog journalism. In her 25-year career, Laura’s stories on child welfare, human trafficking, crime and Kansas secrecy have been nationally recognized.
Judy L. Thomas joined The Star in 1995 and is a member of the investigative team, focusing on watchdog journalism. Over three decades, the Kansas native has covered domestic terrorism, extremist groups and clergy sex abuse. Her stories on Kansas secrecy and religion have been nationally recognized.