Government & Politics

Kansas awarded child welfare grants to troubled Florida agency that didn’t even apply

Kansas awarded grants worth more than $17 million for child welfare services in the state’s western region to a troubled Florida agency that did not apply for the work.

Documents obtained by The Star also reveal that Eckerd Connects received grants in two other areas of the state despite earning some of the lowest scores during an internal ranking process. In fact, Eckerd wasn’t recommended to receive the grants in either area — and wasn’t even the review team’s second choice.

The grants were awarded last year, when Gina Meier-Hummel led the Department for Children and Families and Jeff Colyer was governor. Before then, child welfare funds in Kansas typically were distributed through contracts that were overseen by the state Department of Administration.

“This is certainly disturbing and quite frankly bizarre,” said Benet Magnuson, executive director of Kansas Appleseed, a nonprofit justice center serving vulnerable Kansans. “This process raises a lot of red flags, and frankly doesn’t make a lot of sense. An agency wouldn’t act like this if they expected any transparency at all.”

It’s not clear why Eckerd was selected for the west region when it did not initially apply. In the other two regions where it received the grants, its bids were considerably lower than the agencies the review panel recommended.

The revelations, discovered in more than 13,000 pages of records released to The Star this week by DCF, only solidify concerns of lawmakers and child advocates who late last year questioned the state’s move from contracts to grants. Many worried that DCF leaders would have too much control over who received tens of millions in state funds each year and that the process was being conducted with little, if any, oversight.

The concerns were so great that days before taking office, newly-elected Gov. Laura Kelly requested the child welfare grants be put on hold and asked providers not to spend any money until the controversial process was reviewed. Kelly planned to examine the grants with newly-appointed DCF secretary Laura Howard. News about that review is expected soon.

“This is appalling,” said House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer, D-Wichita. “This isn’t transparent at all. It’s great to have a review process, but they obviously didn’t follow it. It’s like, ‘We’re going to have this review process to appear to be accountable and transparent, but we’re just going to ignore it.’”

New DCF officials said Howard and her administrative team are reviewing the family preservation grants awarded during the previous administration. The agency released a statement Wednesday regarding the grants and awarding process.

“The concern is why the previous DCF Secretary bypassed the state’s traditional bidding process in favor of a review process solely within the department,” the statement read. “This decision eliminated the transparency inherent in the Department of Administration’s RFP process. The agency also is concerned that grants were made to entities that did not bid for regions they were awarded.

“It is vital that we determine whether these grants are in the best interest of Kansas kids and families.”

Meier-Hummel, who is no longer with DCF, said Wednesday that she could not comment on anything regarding the grants or selection process.

“You’ll just have to go with what you found,” she told The Star. Meier-Hummel also directed questions to DCF — “there are people working for them who know those answers.”

The discovery about the grant process at DCF comes as Kelly is promising to crack down on no-bid contracts across state government. No-bid contracts proliferated under former Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration, and the state now has about 7,300 such contracts.

Last year, Meier-Hummel touted the use of grants as a “dramatic change” and a way to increase accountability and oversight. She said the awards were issued after an “extensive and robust review process.” And in a follow-up interview a month after the grants were announced, she said, “I don’t know how we could be any more transparent.”

Yet the records show that the grant process was far from that.

Two internal teams of staffers from across the agency reviewed the grant applications in late August and submitted their recommendations to Meier-Hummel last fall. Until The Star examined the family preservation documents, it wasn’t known that their top selections weren’t followed in three of the four regions.

The reviewers recommended Cornerstones of Care for the Kansas City region, and that agency was awarded the grant. But Cornerstones was also recommended for the East region, which does not include Kansas City, and that went to Eckerd. St. Francis Ministries was the team’s choice for the West and Wichita regions, but again, those went to Eckerd, records show.

“I’m not sure why you even bother to put a review process in place,” Sawyer said. “If you’re going to ignore it, it’s worthless. “

The Star reported in mid-November that Eckerd Connects had been under fire in Florida 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 about two years.

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 told The Star in November 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 but family preservation.

Over the four-year span of the family preservation grants, Eckerd would receive more than $38 million for the three regions. Records show that Eckerd’s $17 million grant award for the West region was well under the nearly $27 million bid from St. Francis, the agency the panel recommended. And Eckerd’s $9.3 million bid for the grant it received for the Wichita region came in at less than half that of St. Francis, which was again the panel’s choice.

In the state’s East region, Eckerd’s original bid of nearly $14 million was within $22,000 of the bid of Pathway Family Services. But the documents show that Eckerd then revised its bid, lowering it to $11.3 million. DCF then awarded Eckerd that grant as well, despite the panel’s recommendation of Cornerstones of Care, which bid $14.5 million.

In a summary compiled by the reviewers, the team said only two “vendors” met the guidelines of the grant application. Those two providers were Cornerstones and St. Francis Ministries.

“The other vendors were lacking in programming areas in which the team felt would not be in the best interest of Kansas Families,” the summary said.

On the scale of 100, Cornerstones scored an overall 97 by the family preservation review team. St. Francis received an overall 88. Eckerd got a score of 37 points.

Officials with Cornerstones and St. Francis did not directly address the selection process when contacted by The Star. Each agency said it is looking forward to working with DCF.

“We just focus on the things we do best, which is taking care of kids,” said Janis Friesen, a St. Francis Ministries spokeswoman. “The decision on how those contracts were awarded, that was out of our hands. ... Our position is we can only worry about the things we can control.”

Denise Cross, Cornerstones of Care president and CEO, said she and her staff are committed to partnering with DCF and the broader community.

“While we have not seen the scoring of the responses, we have appreciated the opportunity to meet with the new DCF administration to offer our support, discuss the array of services we provide in communities across the state of Kansas, and to highlight key components of our service models outlined in our response to the Child Welfare request for proposals,” Cross said in a statement. “Safety, well-being, and stability for children and families are our priorities.”

An Eckerd spokeswoman on Wednesday referred questions about the grant process to DCF.

“The procurement of family preservation services in Kansas was administered by the Department of Children and Families and as such they are best suited to answer questions as it pertains to their processes and procedures,” said Ellen Standlee, operations director for Eckerd programs in Kansas.

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.

The switch from that process worried some.

“The grants are a little bit concerning to me,” said Rep. Susan Concannon, R-Beloit, who chairs the House Children and Seniors Committee. “What I’ve dug into so far, I’m a little bit concerned with the lack of oversight we would have.”

When Kelly said in January she would halt the grants, she slammed them, saying they were basically no-bid contracts.

Rep. Kathy Wolfe Moore, D-Kansas City, Kan., said the reason the state puts contracts out for bid is to get the best product and the best price.

“Not doing that is not being a good steward of the taxpayers’ money,” Wolfe Moore said. “So I think it’s really concerning when we go around the process and you’ve got to wonder why and who’s connected to that organization that’s getting a contract without a bid.”

The Star requested records regarding the family preservation in mid-November. A week later, DCF said it could not release them because the agency’s legal team had not finished its final review of the grant awards.

In mid-December, The Star asked again about the request and was told by Brian Dempsey, attorney for DCF at the time, that “research has taken longer than we originally anticipated.” He said that the agency would be able to provide an update on its progress in two weeks.

Then, on Jan. 10, Dempsey emailed and said DCF would not be releasing information.

“Governor-elect Kelly, through her transition team, requested the Kansas Department for Children and Families (DCF) suspend finalization of these grant awards,” Dempsey wrote. “DCF honored the request, and the grant awards are not final. K.S.A. 45-221(a)(28) provides a public agency shall not be required to disclose sealed bids and related documents, until a bid is accepted or all bids rejected. Hence, DCF cannot release the requested records because the grant awards are neither final nor have all bids been rejected.”

When Howard took over DCF, The Star renewed the request. And her administration released the records earlier this week.

On Wednesday, Howard told lawmakers that she anticipates making an announcement later this week about how the agency will move forward with the grants that are currently on hold.

Legislators and child advocates hope the current administration is doing a full account of what happened with the grants and will determine why the state switched to using them.

“What was it guided by?” said Magnuson, of Kansas Appleseed. “Seems like we need to return to normal order as soon as possible.”

Sawyer applauded Kelly for putting the grants on hold.

“They do need a thorough review,” Sawyer said. “But they could go back and look at the panel’s recommendations. Obviously, two of those agencies had very high numbers.”

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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.