Before she’s even asked what ails Kansas’ troubled child welfare system, Laura Howard rattles off a list of woes.
First, there’s the number of kids in foster care. At more than 7,300 children, that’s proportionately higher than many other states.
Then there’s the job vacancy rates that run between 12 percent and 18 percent in child welfare offices across Kansas.
When it comes to abuse and neglect investigators, Howard says their caseloads are double what many other states typically see.
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The troubles go on.
But here’s the thing about the Kansas Department for Children and Families’ new leader. Howard quickly follows up that laundry list with another — of possible solutions.
Work closely with the community on more prevention programs. Hire more investigators to lower caseloads. Add resources to make sure supervisors have time to review hotline calls.
“I’ve told folks that I feel like with the work that we have ahead of us, that it’s a sprint and a marathon at the same time,” says Howard, 58. “Things are not going to change overnight.”
More than a week ago, on a day that marked Howard’s first month as DCF interim secretary, she sat down with The Star and discussed what issues she’ll tackle first.
She’s the third secretary in the past 16 months to lead the agency, which has been mired in controversy involving child deaths, missing foster youth and kids in state custody sleeping in offices due to a lack of beds.
Already, those inside child welfare circles — from advocates to lawmakers — say Howard is jumping on issues that need to be addressed to increase the safety of children.
“She was just very frank,” says Sen. Barbara Bollier, D-Mission Hills, who listened to Howard’s presentation before the Public Health and Welfare Committee. “She was just laying it out like it is, not trying to sugar coat anything, but also not being overly dramatic. ... You can tell she’s a no-nonsense-get-it-done woman.”
Rep. Susan Concannon, R-Beloit, who chairs the House Children and Seniors Committee, says Howard has taken on a lot in her beginning days as secretary. While Howard has appeared before a couple committees that Concannon sits on, she says she hasn’t interacted with the new secretary yet.
“I’ve heard really good things about her,” Concannon says. “ I’m looking forward to working with her.”
Howard most recently came from the University of Kansas, where she was the director of the public management center in the School of Public Affairs and Administration. Over a 14-year period, beginning in the 1990s, she worked for the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services — the previous name of DCF — and held several senior positions. The new DCF leader also has a law degree.
“Laura (Howard) is not about politics, she’s about policy and doing the right thing. She is a true public servant,” says Dave Ranney, a retired reporter who covered child welfare in Kansas for many years and is now involved as a child advocate. “She cares, she’s honest, and she gets it.”
Howard has also been upfront with her opinions on transparency. She says it is crucial that a system hold a mirror up to itself if it wants to improve.
When critical incidents happen, she says she and her staff will provide as much information as they legally can.
“I’m a person who has always believed strongly that government is stronger when you are shining a light on what’s happening in government,” Howard says. “It’s really hard to improve and make something better if you’re not honest about where you are and where you are starting.”
The state’s child welfare agency has been under scrutiny for more than two years after high-profile deaths of children across Kansas and revelations in the fall of 2017 that children were sleeping in offices and kids were missing from foster care.
DCF’s past lack of transparency in addressing these issues was a main feature in The Star’s November 2017 series on secrecy in Kansas government.
After the series, child welfare advocates and lawmakers demanded change.
Bollier says that the previous DCF secretary, Gina Meier-Hummel, “did some things that were helpful and more transparent.
“But I think there was room for improvement,” Bollier says. “And I see that now.”
Earlier this month, more trouble surfaced as records obtained by The Star showed that the previous DCF administration awarded family preservation grants to an embattled Florida nonprofit that didn’t even apply for one it received. And the same agency, Eckerd Connects, had some of the lowest scores by an internal review team but got three of the four regions in Kansas anyway.
The day after that report, Howard and Gov. Laura Kelly announced the state had canceled all family preservation grants and would rebid them as contracts. Foster care grants won’t be rebid, but those grants have been re-opened for negotiations.
“I’m encouraged by the bold move to rescind some of those grants and take the time and look at it and do it right,” says Lori Ross, a long-time child advocate in Missouri and Kansas. “It was absolutely shocking that Eckerd received a contract at all. But that it received one that it didn’t even bid on, that just defies belief.”
One of Howard’s first goals is to focus on what she refers to as the “front door” to the foster care system. She plans to increase staff at the protection report center (where hotline calls are taken) and improve tools and training for workers taking the calls and investigating the allegations.
“It’s really difficult to take those calls,” Howard says. “And I think we need to do a better job of equipping the staff to do that.”
After taking inventory at the call center, DCF officials noticed that at times supervisors were “spending too much time taking calls,” Howard says. She’s hoping that adding staff will help.
“I need those supervisors at those protection report centers to be reviewing the screening decisions made by the workers,” Howard says, referring to how a call is categorized and whether it is sent to an investigator. “So we can see where there may be outliers, where there may be issues.”
Another push by Howard is for staff to complete investigations in a timely manner, which in some cases doesn’t happen. One reason for that, Howard says, is investigators on average can get 40 new cases a month. That’s on top of some they may still have open.
Caseloads for investigators in most states run 20 to 22. The recommendation of the Child Welfare League of America is 15.
Howard will also focus on working with contractors to make sure their performance is best for children and families in Kansas.
“I didn’t hesitate to take this on because it’s so critical,” Howard says. “I think that there’s nothing that’s more important that the state does than making sure kids are safe, that kids have the opportunity to have families, whether that’s their own or another family in a timely manner.”
The Kansas system needs to make some quick improvements, advocates and lawmakers say, but also stay focused on the bigger picture. Their hope is that Howard stays strong on her convictions about transparency and in strengthening the child welfare system.
“Anybody who comes in the door and says, ‘Look, I’m going to try to focus on the parts we need to focus on,’” Ross says, “and says ‘I’m going to do what’s right for kids and families and I’m going to make sure there aren’t any hidden agendas or secrets’ — absolutely, 100 percent, I’m encouraged by that.”
Reporter Jonathan Shorman contributed to this report.