Politics & Government

Kansas child welfare agency trying to undercut research cited by incoming governor

Democrat Laura Kelly defeats Kris Kobach to become Kansas’ next governor

Democrat Laura Kelly will become the next governor of Kansas after voters rejected Republican Kris Kobach’s hard-right campaign and embraced Kelly’s promises of moderation and stability.
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Democrat Laura Kelly will become the next governor of Kansas after voters rejected Republican Kris Kobach’s hard-right campaign and embraced Kelly’s promises of moderation and stability.

In the final days before Kansas Gov.-elect Laura Kelly takes office, the state’s child welfare agency is attempting to undercut research she’s cited in opposing welfare restrictions championed by former Gov. Sam Brownback.

Kelly’s team criticized the agency’s leadership, appointed by outgoing Republican Gov. Jeff Colyer, for commissioning a report with public funds that raises doubts about research linking welfare restrictions with child maltreatment. Republican lawmakers may use the report as the basis for a possible fight over welfare policies.

Those policies ultimately affect how many Kansans can receive benefits, including cash assistance. The number families receiving benefits has dropped by thousands over the past several years.

Kelly, a Democrat, has been critical of changes to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, or TANF, in Kansas over the past few years, from lowering lifetime limits on benefits to cutting the number of months someone can remain eligible.

She and other opponents say the changes make it more difficult for people in need to get help, but proponents say the policies encourage recipients to get jobs.

Brownback imposed many of the changes and the Legislature later placed them into law. Kelly would need legislative approval in order to reverse the policies.

The Kansas Department for Children and Families has disputed the research’s conclusions for months. But with less than two weeks before Kelly takes office, the agency has released a report calling into question the work of researchers at the University of Kansas who found a link between welfare restrictions and child maltreatment as well as the rising number of children in foster care.

“It’s remarkable that the current leadership at Department for Children and Families think it is wise to use $24,000 of TANF funds to pay for this ‘evaluation.’ We believe those funds could have been better spent to directly assist struggling children,” Kelly spokeswoman Ashley All said.

All said that Kelly found that the KU study raised “some important questions about child welfare system.”

Kelly has previously mentioned the KU research, which has circulated among lawmakers and child welfare professionals in Kansas for more than a year. The preliminary research appears to show policies removing families from TANF and limiting access to TANF increases abuse and the number of foster care placements.

The number of families receiving TANF benefits in Kansas fell by several thousand in just a few years, from more than 13,000 in 2011 to about 4,100 in 2018. The number of children in foster care also has been rising, both in Kansas and elsewhere.

DCF’s evaluation of the research, led by University of Maryland professor Douglas Besharov, said that the researchers’ conclusions are based on incomplete data and analysis and that factors like changes in child welfare policies were not taken into account. The researchers’ interpretation of results is “problematic,” the evaluation said.

Besharov’s evaluation acknowledges that the KU research is only preliminary but that it has received widespread attention. Besharov also cautions that his evaluation does not make a judgment about whether there is a connection between welfare policies and foster care.

In conclusion, the evaluation says that “whatever might be the actual relationship between the availability of welfare benefits and child maltreatment and foster care placement, what we know about their analysis establishes that their study does not support their publicized findings.”

DCF Secretary Gina Meier-Hummel said in releasing the report that employment is the “only real solution to true economic stability.” The agency wants to help Kansans with their immediate needs, but in the long term the best thing DCF can do is help find them jobs, she said.

“Professor Besharov’s study plainly illustrates we cannot simply rely on one study to change public policy or law, but instead we must be diligent about reviewing public policies, data and outcomes to ensure we are doing the right things for Kansas children and families. My team continues to look at this matter internally,” Meier-Hummel said.

Donna Ginther, one of the researchers on the KU study, said no set of empirical work is perfect, “but when you find statistical regularity like we have that has such important implications for children, you put it out there and make sure the state does due diligence.”

Some of Besharov’s criticisms are valid, Ginther said, but added that researchers took into account several factors that could have altered results and have done much more analysis than what Besharov was able to examine.

“So far, our results stand up,” Ginther said.

Ginther indicated that finishing the research was likely to be her top priority in the near future.

In the meantime, Republicans may use the new report to push back against any attempt to reverse welfare changes enacted over the past several years.

Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, said experts had pointed out “obvious holes” in the KU study. A majority of Kansans support work requirements because they “strengthen economic freedom and decrease child poverty.”

“Governor-elect Kelly should not be using a flawed study as if it’s fact-based evidence when attempting to push her agenda,” Wagle said.

And House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, R-Wichita, said it was “disturbing that KU researchers responsible for this study provided public testimony trumpeting incomplete findings and preliminary conclusions” without their work having undergone peer review or other scrutiny.

But efforts to cast doubt on the research have provoked a backlash from Democrats and child advocates.

Annie McKay, director of Kansas Action for Children, said DCF’s statement on the evaluation opened with “what looks like them throwing spaghetti at a wall to see what’s going to stick from a data standpoint to try to detract from what the real issue is.”

The DCF statement begins by saying that child poverty in Kansas is at its lowest level since 2004, citing a KIDS COUNT report. But KIDS COUNT data shows that child poverty in Kansas is actually higher than it was in 2004.

DCF spokeswoman Taylor Forrest on Monday acknowledged that the claim was incorrect.

According to the data, 84,000 children were in poverty in Kansas in 2004, or 12 percent. In 2017, the number was 104,000, or 15 percent.

Childhood poverty did fall between 2012 and 2016, before ticking up in 2017.

“What’s at stake here is that we are seeing the beginning of the trend that worried us, that we thought would likely come as families began to fall off the rolls,” McKay said.

It remains unclear whether Kelly would be able to rollback welfare restrictions. She faces a potentially adversarial Republican-controlled Legislature and has already named education funding and Medicaid expansion as among her highest priorities.

Kelly will assume office on Jan. 14. A speech to the Legislature laying out her agenda is expected soon after.

Sen. Barbara Bollier, a Mission Hills Democrat, said she doesn’t see changes to welfare policies coming from the Legislature, but “who knows what the governor might put together in the package to bargain for. That I don’t know.”