Barbara Shelly

Barbara Shelly: Kansas services are corroding on Gov. Sam Brownback’s watch

Inexperienced managers and high employee turnover are problems in Kansas under Gov. Sam Brownback.
Inexperienced managers and high employee turnover are problems in Kansas under Gov. Sam Brownback.

Kansas’ child protection system is under fire on a number of fronts, so it came as no surprise when news services reported recently that Michael Myers, director of prevention and protection services, was leaving the Department for Children and Families.

What struck me as curious was that he was there at all.

Myers came to the agency in 2011 without the usual background in child protection, social work or state government. His job experience was in property development and construction management in Topeka.

He landed a position as chief of operations in the department’s Kansas City region and quickly moved up to regional director. Phyllis Gilmore, secretary of the Department for Children and Families, named Myers as one of her top aides last December.

He was now in charge of the division responsible for protecting at-risk children. It’s a complex, high-stakes job, requiring knowledge of family dynamics, law enforcement, courts, foster care and adoption procedures. Myers’ background in the field seemed somewhat thin.

But that is the case with many of the people in key positions in Kansas government right now.

“Many of the people hired into top positions are people who have no experience in their field,” said Rebecca Proctor, executive director of the Kansas Organization of State Employees. “We’re seeing inexperienced managers with no knowledge of processes and no respect for the people with experience who actually do the work.”

Because of that, low pay and other factors, “people leave state service regularly,” Proctor said.

That’s especially the case in the Department for Children and Families, which is seeing an acute shortage of social workers in child protection.

More of the initial abuse and neglect investigations are being handed to “special investigators,” a job classification with minimal education and experience requirements. But that practice accelerates the departure of social workers, Proctor said. They fear the consequences of signing off on the recommendations of inexperienced staffers when a child’s safety may be on the line.

Of all the demolition that Sam Brownback has imposed on Kansas during his time as governor — the busted budget, the disastrous tax cuts, his war on schools and courts — this under-the-radar corrosion of state government and services ranks among the most alarming and long-lasting aspects.

Eight of Brownback’s 11 cabinet secretary positions have turned over since 2011 — some of them multiple times — and a ninth official, corrections secretary Ray Roberts, plans to retire at the end of the year.

To replace top officials, the governor is making some unorthodox choices. His new commerce secretary, Antonio Soave, just completed a stint as a college soccer coach and talks about fostering peace for the human race, whether it be through sports or commerce.

The Kansas Legislature did its part to encourage the exodus from state government last session when it passed a bill that will gradually convert more jobs to “unclassified,” meaning employees will lose protections that guarantee them a certain pay scale and the right to file grievances and appeal dismissals.

To see why professionalism and expertise matter, look no further than the Department for Children and Families. As Myers exits, his division is buffeted by charges that it discriminated against same-sex foster parents. Fears are mounting that warnings about children in peril weren’t handled properly.

Not all of the trouble can be laid at Myers’ feet. Gilmore, his boss, is in the center of the controversies. And it is Brownback who bears the ultimate responsibility, not just for the child protection problems but for the rot that is undermining Kansas government.