The Kansas Department for Children and Families and its new secretary, Gina Meier-Hummel, are finally feeling the heat in the wake of several high-profile cases, including the killings of Evan Brewer and Adrian Jones, and the disappearance of Lucas Hernandez.
The DCF is facing unprecedented scrutiny regarding the agency’s overall inaction and lack of transparency, and during an appearance before the House Judiciary Committee last week, Meier-Hummel was cross-examined at length by exasperated lawmakers who must be feeling the heat themselves.
This is a good thing, of course. The department has long needed a serious check, and sweeping changes are in order. But what took so long?
It’s too bad it took a string of inexplicable tragedies to motivate changes in policy and personnel at the DCF, and it’s even more unfortunate that the agency had to be exposed for doctoring records in the Evan Brewer case before it offered to do what it should have done all along: open its files to the public when children are killed.
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Back in August 2016, The Eagle ran a serious of stories about child deaths sustained in day cares – both licensed and unlicensed. Lax day care enforcement was implicated, and this author suggested it was time for the Legislature and executive branch to stop concentrating almost exclusively on right-to-life issues and start working harder to protect our children.
This is still true today. DCF leaders are responsible for cleaning things up at the agency, but our elected officials are ultimately responsible for making sure this gets done.
As parents, most of us are concerned about protecting the futures of not just our own children, but the scores of others who desperately need care and attention. Everywhere we turn these days, we see new and unprecedented dangers. We’re scared, quite frankly – and we probably should be.
Our schools are under attack. Sexual predators are brazen enough to victimize children in open rooms with video cameras. The FBI has declared Kansas an originating state for human trafficking. Even background checks don’t provide much security these days.
Of course, the DCF does not have jurisdiction over all of these issues. But the hostile climate for children in America renders it more crucial than ever for the DCF to function effectively in two key areas: removing bad actors from the licensed child care and foster care settings, and fully investigating reports of abuse and neglect in the home setting. There has long been real cause for concern in both departments.
Both Meier-Hummel and Gov. Jeff Colyer have assured us that real, systemic change is on the way, but the agency’s own internal data reports leave cause for concern as to whether we will get the full story.
According to the agency’s data, Child Protective Services received 67,372 intake reports during fiscal year 2017. Fifty-five percent of reports were assigned for follow-up, and the top three maltreatment types involved were physical abuse (32.4 percent), emotional abuse (20.3) and lack of supervision (18.2). The agency self-reports that 96.9 percent of assigned child reports had a timely contact with the victim/family, and that a staggering 89.1 percent of child reports assigned for a finding were unsubstantiated.
It is these final two data points that should be called into question. Are we to believe, based on known cases of public interest, that 97 percent of assigned cases are being treated with diligence, and that nearly 90 percent of these reports cannot be substantiated? Or is it more likely that not enough cases are being substantiated, and that many of the remaining 45 percent of reports that are not assigned should have been?
All we can do as parents and concerned citizens is continue to make reports, ask questions and demand accountability. When the dust settles, and the news stories grind to a halt, we must keep the pressure on the agency. We can accomplish this by e-mailing our elected officials directly with our concerns, as experience shows that they do respond. The next election is always just around the corner.
Blake Shuart is a Wichita attorney.