Kansas' child welfare leader said Monday her agency needs an additional $24 million to address a desperate need for more foster care beds and a shortage of workers to investigate cases of abuse and neglect.
Gina Meier-Hummel, head of the Department for Children and Families, said in a news conference that the agency has made progress since she took over in December. But, she acknowledged, in order to fix the troubled system she inherited she must have more money, including funds to hire 200 new workers to investigate cases and perform other duties.
Meier-Hummel said 30 percent of the agency's child protective services positions are vacant across the state. Some positions have been vacant for as many as 500 days. That's why, she said, Kansas would have to resort to hiring unlicensed workers — with college degrees — which others states have done.
"While we would certainly prefer to have licensed social work staff doing the investigative work, we have been advertising and advertising positions for quite some time now, and we can't get many of those positions filled," Meier-Hummel said.
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She said the decision won't compromise safety, but she knew it would be "a little controversial. ... I think it's more concerning to not have the positions filled.
"We're talking about having competent workers and trained workers, so it's better to have them than to have vacancies."
The agency has been under scrutiny for more than two years after high-profile deaths of children across Kansas and the revelations of children sleeping in offices and kids missing from foster care.
From Dec. 1 to April 11, 137 children spent at least one night sleeping in child welfare offices run by contractors KVC Health Systems and St. Francis Community Services, according to information the child welfare agency provided.
In Monday's news conference, Meier-Hummel said she's been in constant contact with both contractors about kids sleeping in offices. They've brainstormed ways to end the practice and continue to do so.
"We're definitely involved, because I want to be involved," she said. "I think it's important for us to be part of the process and part of the solution, and quite frankly, if there's exceptions to be made or if there's difficulty with our system, we need to be able to kind of get out of the way, so it's been good to be part of the process."
In order to get more placements, the agency has been recruiting more foster families and working to approve more relatives.
"We're in need of every kind of placement there is," Meier-Hummel said. "We are working with group home providers as well as some more high-end type of programs to help with the youth. We're looking all across the board to add additional beds."
DCF officials also say they continue to focus every day on the number of missing children. As of April 12, 68 children had been reported missing from foster care. Last fall, lawmakers were stunned when they learned that 74 foster children couldn't be accounted for in Kansas, according to numbers provided by DCF.
As of Monday morning, before Meier-Hummel addressed the media, she received word that again, 74 children were missing from care. The majority are runaways.
She said she knows missing kids are in risky situations.
"We're doing real work to try and find these youth," she said. "We want them to be in placements, safe, so I want you to know that we're continuing to work on that. We feel good about the progress we've made but obviously, more efforts need to be continuing."