Recent announcements suggest that a new and improved day will soon dawn for the Kansas Department for Children and Families.
Not so fast.
The changes come on the heels of a Kansas City Star series on secrecy in Kansas government that detailed how the child welfare system uses rules governing juveniles’ privacy to conceal the actions of state officials.
But the departing leader, Phyllis Gilmore is merely the figurehead in a fatally flawed agency. She is but one person in a closed system overseeing the 7,000 children in the state’s care.
The agency’s culture of secrecy and its unwillingness to be forthcoming in the face of criticism persisted with the help of officials at the top, middle and bottom of the bureaucracy. These are systemic issues created by entrenched and wrong-headed attitudes, practices and policies.
Negative outcomes are often unintentional, and there’s no doubt that many committed social workers, most of whom are underpaid and overloaded with cases, are toiling for DCF.
Now, major changes are urgently needed as Meier-Hummel begins her work. It’s a good sign that the new secretary is from outside of the department — she is the head of a Lawrence children’s crisis center — but is familiar with DCF, having worked in the agency and for one of its foster care contractors.
A thorough review of the department will be Meier-Hummel’s first objective, a decision supported by Colyer.
Experts say two attributes are necessary for a state child welfare agency to run smoothly: accountability and transparency.
Kansas does not have enough of either one.
But overhauling the department will not be an easy process. It will take time to backtrack through case files to check policy versus outcome and to interview workers and foster families. The system must function more effectively for both its employees and most importantly, for the children it seeks to help.
Appallingly, Kansas has been unwilling to be forthcoming with either child welfare advocates, the Legislature or the media when probed about the most heinous of outcomes — children who have died while being overseen by the state. More scrutiny and more transparency are essential to identify missteps and develop better practices.
Some critics question have suggested that many of the problems stem from the state’s privatization of its services in the late 1990s.
The issue isn’t simply that the state privatized; rather, the question is how the state has managed that arrangement. Kansas has winnowed its contracts down to two agencies, a structure that is convenient for the state, but not necessarily in the best interest of children.
Elsewhere, privatization has worked when the state has remained consistently involved in the work, ensuring oversight of the contracted companies. Meier-Hummel has wisely indicated that her review will assess the effectiveness of the privatized system.
Critics argue that under Gilmore, there was a shuffling of duties to the contractors, with little oversight.
Another issue that must be addressed is the role of foster parents who too often feel left out of important meetings and court hearings. Advocates for reform say foster families, who have the most contact with the children in question, are often treated dismissively, making retaining such families all the more difficult.
Efforts to push a foster caregivers bill of rights though the Legislature have failed in recent years.
The proximity of the state line also must be a top concern. Troubled families who are trying to avoid scrutiny are able to move easily between Kansas and Missouri, sometimes multiple times, dodging social workers.
DCF has had three audits in recent years. Now it needs a skilled leader willing to implement changes, not simply assess the landscape.
Gilmore’s retirement allows for a fresh start and provides the opportunity to begin the crucial work of meticulously laying out plans to ensure the agency can function more effectively. This is the state of Kansas’ chance to reaffirm its commitment to the children in its care.