Is the new Kansas child welfare leader already losing support?

Gina Meier-Hummel, secretary of Kansas’ Department for Children and Families
Gina Meier-Hummel, secretary of Kansas’ Department for Children and Families The Star

Gina Meier-Hummel accepted the job of secretary for the Kansas Department for Children and Families under a storm cloud.

She agreed to lead an agency in crisis, one that has been rightly lambasted for its lack of responsiveness and transparency. Several Kansas children had died of extreme abuse and neglect.

Five months later, Meier-Hummel’s grace period probably hasn’t expired yet. But concerns are emerging.

From day one, she has said and done many of the right things: talking about increasing transparency, ordering top-down reviews and focusing attention on children missing from foster homes and those who wind up sleeping in offices due to a lack of bed space.

On Monday, she made a big ask: Meier-Hummel said she needs $24 million and plans to hire 200 more people to investigate abuse and neglect cases and perform other duties. The agency is underfunded. But Meier-Hummel is seeking an infusion of funds before making substantial changes to a broken organization. Much of what’s been accomplished so far is more in line with public relations.

Add to it that many of these new hires will be unlicensed social workers who will be tasked with investigating cases. That approach might suffice for cutting caseloads, but workers who are new to child welfare are not well equipped to influence the fate of struggling families.

Advocates for children are uneasy. They are increasingly worried that Meier-Hummel will not change the culture of the dysfunctional department she now leads. She must prove them wrong.

Kansas has more than 7,500 children in its care, a number that continues to rise. Where is the effort to determine why so many children are flooding the system, instead of simply finding more beds? Would some of these children be better served by helping their families stabilize, rather than removing them from circumstances that can be labeled neglectful but are tied to poverty?

Reams of reports on such issues have been produced since the state privatized these services, and many recommendations have yet to be implemented.

Finally, Meier-Hummel must navigate the politics of these matters. Many child welfare advocates were dismayed to see the DCF secretary acquiesce to conservative wishes and reverse her opposition to carving out religious protections for agencies that handle adoptions. The proposed measure is a strike against the rights of LGBT people seeking to adopt, and the bill would also affect LGBT children needing homes.

Meier-Hummer sent the message that political expediency will override her concerns for children. It’s an approach that is wrong for the culture of the department. And it’s not in the best interests of those children and families.