SRS needs scrutiny

Kansas Social and Rehabilitation Services Secretary Robert Siedlecki was welcomed to the job and state in January by a mandate to cut $42 million from his budget. Given the vulnerable population that SRS serves, such cutting needs to be done with extreme care and the close scrutiny of legislators and other Kansans.

“Tough choices, but we’ll work within our mandate,” said Siedlecki, after summarizing the targeted cuts for The Eagle editorial board Tuesday. The good news is that Siedlecki, formerly chief of staff with the Florida Department of Health and legal counsel to the Bush administration’s Task Force for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, clearly shares Gov. Sam Brownback’s determination to significantly improve the welfare of the state’s children. Their stated goals include decreasing the percentage of children in poverty, increasing adoptions and removing disincentives to marriage.

Siedlecki’s vision of demanding accountability and “measurable results” from every SRS contract fits the public mood and should serve the public good. While his decision to hire a $75,000-a-year director of fraud investigations and plans to add investigators have been criticized as costly and redundant, the positions could pay for themselves, as Siedlecki predicts, if they turn up many more cases of fraud among the 296,000 Kansans using Vision food-stamp cards.

Siedlecki’s goal of “spreading the word” on adoption via churches, nonprofit groups and otherwise also sounds good. As adoptive parents of two children, Brownback and his wife are uniquely suited to speak for adoption.

As Siedlecki and Brownback pursue their agenda for SRS through statewide meetings on child welfare, their faith-based initiatives and other means, that agenda must not come at the expense of the rest of SRS’ vital work — or, for that matter, the bright constitutional line between church and state.

Nothing must be a higher SRS priority than avoiding more tragic cases like that of 10-month-old Karsyn Young, whose story was told in the Sunday Eagle. According to the Wichita boy’s great-grandmother, the state twice investigated his possible abuse, including a broken leg, yet did not place him in state custody. Karsyn died in March 2010 from blunt-force injuries; his mother’s ex-boyfriend recently pleaded guilty to reckless second-degree murder and drew a 10-year prison sentence. (Siedlecki told the editorial board that SRS is investigating the great-grandmother’s claim that an SRS social worker said the state lacked the time and resources to fully investigate the cause of the broken leg.)

Speaking to the editorial board, Siedlecki talked up the need to be as transparent as possible about SRS’ work. Openness deserves more than lip service across SRS and, frankly, the entire Brownback administration. The marriage initiative is causing particular concern.

Meanwhile, Siedlecki deserves a chance to show what he and Brownback can do across SRS and the state with fewer resources than in the past. As they do, lawmakers and other onlookers should view the new SRS less with suspicion than with an attitude of “Trust, but verify.”