TOPEKA — The head of the state's Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services took his message of strengthening families to one of the roughest neighborhoods in the capital city Friday morning, saying neighborhood-based organizations are on the front line in keeping families together.
"If we're going to make a difference in our families and make a difference in our communities, it's gotta be from the grass roots up," SRS Secretary Rob Siedlecki told a group of about 20 people gathered at the Euclid Masonic Lodge for the Heart of America Kansas Black Expo.
"I can talk all day from the top and run by great things. But if it's not in the heart of those in the community, we're not going to have success."
Curtis Pitts, executive director of the Expo, said SRS needs to be accountable, not just provide assistance checks and look the other way.
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"They can't provide a service and disappear and not know what the impact was," he said.
He said that in Topeka, SRS went through an era where it was separating families, and he recounted how his family was split up when his childhood home and others on his street were condemned.
He said he welcomes Siedlecki's healthy family initiatives, regardless of how some view them as polarizing.
"It ain't a liberal situation, it ain't a conservative situation. People need help to get their family and their lives together," he said.
Pitts said he has earned an average of about $12,000 annually in recent years, has made many bad mistakes in his life and is a single father. But he said he doesn't depend on SRS assistance because he sees many people struggling more than he is.
"It's not just the state and the taxpayers' job to do this," he said. "Our community has to get involved."
He said a friend questioned why he would even talk to Siedlecki and his department, suggesting to him that he should "let them eat cake." "I'm like 'we can't afford to not talk with them and work with them,' " Pitts said.
"We can't afford to have party lines," he said. "That's a rich folks' argument. We have to go out and get the services into the communities that need them."
Siedlecki mostly stuck to his talking points, highlighting initiatives to encourage more adoptions, healthier marriages and more engaged fathers. But he provided little detail about how that would be done — besides by working with local organizations, including churches.
"We don't want to reinvent the wheel with new programs when there's good partnerships out there already that can help men become good fathers," he said.
Government doesn't have all the answers, he said. SRS wants to work with "anyone of good will" to help improve families.
The message resonated with Bruce Bynum, a support and adoption coordinator with the Kansas Children's Service Leagues' Parents Helping Parents program in Wichita.
SRS is cutting about $43 million from its budget and is planning to close some regional offices, leaving many wondering how they'll provide adequate services. But Bynum said he hopes that the cutbacks will help force collaboration among organizations.
"I believe the community can always rise up when it sees a need," he said.