Hire 200 unlicensed workers for state’s child-welfare agency? Here’s why it may work

Gina Meier-Hummel, secretary of the Kansas Department for Children and Families.
Gina Meier-Hummel, secretary of the Kansas Department for Children and Families. File photo

At first glance, it seems a preposterous and careless proposal: Spend $5.4 million to hire 200 unlicensed social workers to investigate reports of child abuse and neglect around Kansas.

The Kansas Department for Children and Families, already under heavy criticism for its decisions in the death of 3-year-old Wichita boy Evan Brewer and the disappearance of 5-year-old Wichita boy Lucas Hernandez (and other cases), wants neophytes watching over our state’s most vulnerable children?

It does seem crazy — until considering the alternative.

The DCF has far too many open social-work positions — about 30 percent of its jobs inside its child protective services division. Some, DCF secretary Gina Meier-Hummel said, have been vacant more than a year.

So which is more productive: spreading qualified case workers far too thin, or easing their loads with underqualified but trainable college graduates who will still work under a licensed social worker?

We’ll argue for more bodies — more trained bodies who can help social workers handle more cases.

Lawmakers were rightly quick to question the proposal made Monday by Meier-Hummel and Gov. Jeff Colyer. Becky Fast, head of the Kansas chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, told the Lawrence Journal-World it “can mean the difference between life and death for children.”

So can an overworked, underpaid social worker. Fast was correct in noting Kansas could attract more and better social workers by paying more. But that happens over time, not within a legislative wrapup session.

For now, Kansas’ system that oversees foster care and child welfare services needs more bright, engaged people looking out for vulnerable children. Meier-Hummel, in her fifth month on the job, recognized an overwhelmed staff and is asking the Legislature for more funding — $24.3 million over three years — to plug needed holes.

Meier-Hummel has enacted other changes, such as hiring two investigators to find missing foster children, most of whom run away from foster homes. Many problems remain, including roughly 70 foster children being missing at any one time and foster children sleeping overnight in foster-care offices.

Hiring 200 unlicensed workers won’t solve problems quickly. Training new employees will take time and mistakes in child-protection decisions could still happen.

But recent DCF actions that have been made public in multiple child-welfare cases show that the department isn’t working as well as it should. An infusion of help is a needed step toward improved efficiency.