Government & Politics

Kansas changed how child welfare is funded. New governor questions if it’s legal

Gov.-elect Laura Kelly shocked many Thursday by putting on hold a major change in the way the state funds child welfare services.

And that wasn’t the only surprise: The incoming Democratic governor said she was replacing the leader of the Department for Children and Families, who had been in office just over a year.

Kelly blasted the recent decision to award grants — instead of the usual contracts — to providers of foster care and family preservation services. She asked the Kansas Department for Children and Families to delay the implementation of those statewide grants.

“The process in which these grantees were evaluated and selected has not been transparent,” Kelly said in a release announcing the changes. The release went on to say, “These so-called ‘grants’ are essentially no-bid contracts that did not follow the state’s official procurement process.”

By Thursday afternoon, Gina Meier-Hummel — the current DCF secretary who promoted the switch to grants last year— announced she and her administration would go along with Kelly’s request and “hold the grants.” Recipients were announced in November, with the transition to new providers beginning Jan. 1 and full services to Kansas children and families in July.

Meier-Hummel defended the switch she made last year.

“These new grants are necessary to improve child welfare in Kansas and are in the absolute best interest for Kansas children and families,” Meier-Hummel said in a written statement. “The grants were constructed after gathering valued feedback from the public and child welfare stakeholders — we received more than 400 concerns about the current child welfare contracts.”

Kelly’s stand questioning the grants comes after weeks of growing criticism from child advocates and some lawmakers that the new process wasn’t transparent and eliminates necessary oversight. And, they told The Kansas City Star, that by deciding to go with grants, DCF essentially could choose which agencies it did business with.

The Star reported in mid-November that an embattled Florida non-profit had been awarded the grant to provide family preservation in three of the state’s four regions. Eckerd Connects had been under fire for months after it was discovered that foster children in the Tampa Bay area 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.

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

When contacted Thursday, officials with Eckerd did not comment on Kelly’s concerns or the delay of implementing the grants. “We look forward to partnering with Gov.-elect Laura Kelly’s administration in the future,” said Ellen Standlee, operations director for Eckerd programs in Kansas.

Kelly named Laura Howard as interim leader of both the Kansas Department for Children and Families and the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services. Howard was previously a regional administrator in a federal agency overseeing substance abuse and mental health services.

She is currently the director of the Public Management Center in the School of Public Affairs and Administration at the University of Kansas.

“Laura Howard is the perfect expert to lead DCF and KDADS at this challenging time,” Kelly said. “She has a long history of building coalitions to better deliver services to vulnerable Kansans. Throughout her career, she’s developed a reputation as an expert in state funded services and collaboration between agencies and organizations.”

Kelly takes over as governor on Jan. 14. She and Howard plan to review “whether the ‘grants’ are legal and in the best interest of Kansas children and families,” according to Thursday’s release.

Kelly’s staff has contacted all grant recipients and requested they delay spending any state dollars until further notice from the incoming DCF secretary.

“That’s a good first step,” said Rep. Jarrod Ousley, D-Merriam, who was a member of the legislative child welfare task force. “To make sure we are by the book is probably a good spot to start.”

Some contractors had already started hiring staff and preparing for when the grants went into effect, said Christie Appelhanz, director of the Children’s Alliance of Kansas.

“There is a lot of uncertainty as to what this all means,” Appelhanz said.

For decades, 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 would have final say on who receives the money.

The child welfare agency acknowledged that the switch was “substantial” but insisted it would provide more oversight and accountability.

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 — told The Star that she found using contracts was more transparent. And contracting with out-of-state agencies could be worrisome.

“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.”

Lori Ross, a long-time child advocate in Kansas and Missouri, was among those critical of DCF’s decision to move from contracts to grants when The Star reported about it in the fall. The grant process wasn’t transparent and neither was DCF leadership, she said.

“Because the grants weren’t considered by a separate entity, the evaluations weren’t neutral,” Ross said Thursday. “It was all done inside DCF. ... When an agency awards its own grants, it may select who they want to do business with and not who is best for Kansas’ kids and families.

Yet, Rep. Susan Humphries, R-Wichita, who will be vice chair of the House’s children and seniors committee, said she found both Meier-Hummel and the grant process open and transparent.

“I didn’t really know any of the inner-workings, but I know that what we were doing didn’t seem to be working and her interest in taking care of children in our state resulted in the decision to do the grant process,” Humphries said. She added that she finds it “unfortunate that a person with decades of dedicated child welfare experience, like Secretary Meier-Hummel, that she would be relieved of her duties when she’s right in the middle of so many good things happening.”

Sen. Ed Berger, R-Hutchinson, who will serve as vice chair of the Senate’s public health and welfare committee, also praised Meier-Hummel. The secretary worked hard to turn DCF around after coming into a difficult situation, Berger said, adding that she did a good job.

Meier-Hummel didn’t have much time to see the results of her hard work, Berger said.

“I’m sure Gov. Kelly has reviewed the issue and has decided to go a particular direction, which is certainly her prerogative, but knowing Gina Meier-Hummel was not in that position very long, I would liked to have given her some more time to see some of the things she was implementing come to fruition,” Berger said.

Others, though, applauded Kelly’s decision on the grants and said the selection of Howard is proof that the incoming governor knows the desperate needs of Kansas’ most vulnerable children.

“I think the governor-elect has been in enough committee meetings and heard enough testimony to know that change needs to come,” Ousley said. “We need to do better by these kids and she’s going to put the right people in the right places to make these changes.”

Kansas Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, said Kelly had chosen a “true expert in the social services field” in Howard.

As far as Meier-Hummel is concerned, the secretary didn’t serve long enough to be evaluated, Hensley said.

“I think that she, in many respects, promoted herself and said a lot of good things about herself but I don’t know if self-promotion is a good way to handle what is a very important job in state government. Laura Howard will not be self promoting, she will be promoting good public policy,” Hensley said. “Lord knows we’ve got to clean up the foster care system and I think Laura Howard has the kind of knowledge and expertise in that area that she’ll be able to do it.”

In Meier-Hummel’s statement Thursday, she said it had been “my greatest honor and privilege to serve the children and families of Kansas” during her year as DCF secretary. After thanking staff, others in the system and Gov. Jeff Colyer, Meier-Hummel pointed to several improvements made under her watch, from improving training and increasing child safety to adding 150 residential beds and filling worker vacancies across the state.

Colyer has said child welfare is one of the most difficult issues his administration grappled with, adding that for “many, many moons it’s been pushed into the dark.” He said his administration worked to bring the system into the light, but that it needs continuous improvement.

The Star’s Judy L. Thomas contributed to this report.