What’s going on at the Kansas Department for Children and Families?
Recent child tragedies in Wichita helped push the Kansas Department for Children and Families to oust its top official in the city and promise new procedures.
DCF Secretary Gina Meier-Hummel this week told agency workers in Wichita that she shares their concern "about recent tragedies involving children in your community, and understand on a very personal level the scrutiny the agency is under."
DCF received several reports that 3-year-old Evan Brewer had been abused prior to his death last fall. The boy was found encased in concrete in his Wichita home.
Police are still searching for 5-year-old Lucas Hernandez. He has been missing for nearly two weeks; concerns about possible abuse had been previously reported to DCF.
Meier-Hummel sent a letter to employees on Tuesday announcing the departure of Wichita regional director Bill Gale. She did not name specific Wichita incidents.
The letter referenced “recent tragedies involving children” as well as a top-to-bottom review of the agency. The letter also said the agency is working to be responsive to staff concerns.
“Given these factors,” the agency decided to move in a different direction for leadership, the letter said.
In response to questions, Meier-Hummel said in a statement Thursday that the decision to remove Gale was not the result of any one situation in particular.
"This was the result of having reviewed a number of situations and after having multiple discussions with staff and stakeholders," she said.
Calls to Gale, a former Wichita City councilman and Sedgwick County election commissioner, have not been returned.
Gale’s ouster is part of a growing number of steps Meier-Hummel has taken to reform the agency. She was appointed in December after years of controversial leadership by her predecessor, Phyllis Gilmore. Public scrutiny of DCF has been growing, with lawmakers critical of how the agency handled high-profile child deaths.
"If we need to replace people, we’re replacing people," Gov. Jeff Colyer said Thursday.
Rep. Tom Sawyer, D-Wichita, suggested DCF may be turning Gale into a scapegoat. Sawyer’s district includes the house where Brewer lived.
"I didn’t hear any complaints about his leadership," Sawyer said.
Meier-Hummel’s letter says Gale did great work since he came into the job in 2014 and that he improved staff morale. But she has said in statements that she wasn’t satisfied with his leadership.
She said in the letter that policy and procedural changes are coming soon.
Meier-Hummel said Thursday that the agency is looking at a number of policy changes that will be posted to the agency’s website when they are made. She didn’t say what changes are being explored but said some — such as legislation to require the release of more information when a child dies — have already been announced.
DCF is also seeking additional funding from lawmakers. The agency wants $16.5 million more for child welfare services over the next two years.
They include funding for 20 additional staff, funds to eliminate the need for children waiting for foster care to sometimes sleep in offices, and resources to aid in finding children who have gone missing from foster care.
“If they applied funding in the right places, that might be helpful. But if they still have the same attitude, if the management still has the same attitude, it’s going to be very difficult to change the viewpoints there,” said Sarah LaFrenz, president of the Kansas Organization of State Employees.
A House committee is considering the funding requests. Lawmakers want assurances DCF will improve.
Rep. Barbara Ballard, a Lawrence Democrat who sits on the committee, pressed Meier-Hummel on Wednesday over how the agency would work better with other states after the case of Adrian Jones, a 7-year-old Kansas City boy who was tortured and fed to pigs. He also lived in Missouri.
"That had to be the most emails I have received since I’ve been a legislator," Ballard said.
Meier-Hummel responded that the additional funding requested is necessary to strengthen the system. But she also indicated employees in some cases need to do a better job.
"I am not necessarily happy with some of the work that we do," Meier-Hummel said, "and we are working on a re-training of some of our child protective service staff to really highlight and emphasize the need…to be reaching out across state lines when we know children and families are moving back and forth."
Once the House Social Services Budget Committee makes its funding recommendations, the full House Appropriations Committee will consider the request.