There’s a multistory maze that workers at the Department for Children and Families must navigate daily while they’re serving clients.
Waiting rooms are spread out between the first and second floors of the Finney State Office Building due to lack of space, and client files are in various rooms on the fifth floor.
“And so we’re going up and down and up and down and up and down all day long to get the clients served as fast as we can,” said DCF regional director Diane Bidwell. “It’s just very fragmented.”
DCF offers a range of services to children and families in about 120,000 square feet over seven floors in the Finney building, where there are also eight other state agencies.
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“If we could have all our economic and employment support functions on one level, holy cow, we’d be awesome,” Bidwell said.
The state of Kansas has notified the city of Wichita that the agencies that occupy the building at 230 E. William won’t be renewing their leases after 20 years in the city-owned space. That means more than 700 people will be moving, more than 550 of whom are with DCF.
“Everybody’s trying to make this a political issue, and it’s just not,” Bidwell said.
She said a change in how the department operates is prompting the move.
“The structure of the building was probably fabulous for the way they did (business) 20 years ago,” Bidwell said.
Until a year and a half ago, DCF operated on a case management system. Potential clients would drop off applications and then wait as long as a month to hear whether they were eligible for services.
For someone who, say, needs help to have enough to eat, Bidwell said, “Can you imagine how hungry they’d be?”
The state switched to what is called a one-touch business model in 2011. Clients visiting the building may have to wait a couple of hours to be seen, but Bidwell said 75 percent of them leave knowing if they have benefits or not.
“Now, it’s a much quicker time,” she said. “We really try to resolve the clients’ issues the first time they come in.”
The department is handling about 45,000 cases. The number continues to rise, Bidwell said.
“We’re amazed,” she said. “It has far exceeded our expectations.”
Bidwell said it’s hard to serve clients well in the current space, and it will be impossible if numbers keep growing.
“We can’t continue to serve clients in this structure, we just can’t,” she said, adding, “and do the best job for them.”
Bidwell said many of DCF’s clients bring children or other family members with them when they visit, and the department needs a lobby for about 300 people.
“We’re really, really trying to stay within fire code,” Bidwell said of the current space. She said that results in lots of shuffling of people.
“It’s constant monitoring to stay within those guidelines.”
She said it would be helpful to have space for files in one area – preferably on the same floor as clients.
“There’s no space in the building that’s big enough to even hold our files.”
Bidwell said that ideally DCF would have 45 rooms for client meetings. Currently there are 35 rooms.
She said there are other issues as well, such as a parking lot that’s a block away. Bidwell said she worries for moms and their small children crossing busy streets.
“I feel like they’re vulnerable out there,” she said. “Cars just whip around.”
Walking that distance may also be an issue for people with physical limitations, Bidwell said.
“We had comments about that,” she said of a survey of clients.
She said 792 clients participated in a voluntary survey about how they get to DCF, which is just down from the city’s main bus station.
Less than 10 percent said they travel to DCF by bus, Bidwell said.
“We were a little bit surprised by that.”
The state is on the hunt for new space, and one building it has identified as a possibility is near the southwest corner of East 47th Street South and South Oliver. It has 100,000 square feet on two floors, its own parking lot and a bus line that runs nearby.
Bidwell said she doesn’t see how the Finney building could be reconfigured for DCF to stay.
“I don’t know how we could get what we need,” she said. “I don’t see how that could happen, but I’m not an architect, so … .”
Though the city of Wichita owns the Finney building, city fleet and facilities superintendent Jay Newton said the state exercised its option to manage the space several years ago.
“So we have not had responsibility day to day for in the ballpark of five years,” Newton said.
He said city and state officials are trying to schedule a tour of the building to see if anything can be done to alleviate the state’s issues.
“I’m willing to do whatever I can within the legal agreement we’ve got and that the council has approved,” Newton said.
Bidwell said the issue is DCF’s ability to help clients strengthen their families, “because that’s what we’re about.”
“We don’t make any decisions lightly around here.”