The crowded field of Republican candidates jockeying to succeed Sam Brownback is loaded with veteran politicians, and all of them believe they are solely qualified to tackle what they contend to be the state’s most important issues – education and the economy included. The candidates are trying desperately to distinguish themselves as the right leader for Kansas by laying out their positions and gauging voter response throughout the state. There has been plenty of mud-slinging in the early stages of the race as well.
But what about the 10,000-pound elephant in the room? What on Earth are these politicians going to do about the Kansas Department for Children and Families? They have talked about it here and there, but if you sneezed, you probably missed it.
Needy children may not write large campaign checks, but there are lots of parents in this state who are hopping mad over the DCF’s lack of transparency, the disorganization in our foster care system and the large number of unsafe day cares that are allowed to stay in business. We care about all the children in this state – not just our own – and we are shocked and dismayed at the number of preventable child deaths occurring.
Embattled DCF Secretary Phyllis Gilmore is gone, and that’s a start. But how is the next Secretary, Gina Meier-Hummel, going to fix the foster care system? Kids are going missing in droves – over 70 of them at last count. Some foster “parents” are cashing checks from the state and providing next to nothing in return. A 22-month-old drowned in a decorative fish pond in August while his foster father was sitting on the couch watching TV. This is exactly the type of occurrence that regular walkthroughs by agency officials are supposed to prevent. And when DCF investigates these horrific injuries and deaths, they often find that allegations of abuse or neglect are “unsubstantiated.”
Substantiation means accountability. Accountability requires hard work and even a bit of moxie at times, rather than simply going through the motions, shuffling papers and moving on to the next file. But it’s not just state officials who are going through the motions now.
Until these candidates undertake to tackle the DCF nightmare head-on, with detailed, tangible, item-by-item solutions, they are simply going through the motions as well. It may be more enticing to talk about broad stroke policy issues on the stump and leave it to the new DCF Secretary to sort things out, rather than roll up their sleeves and wade into the murky waters of the foster care system, but that’s what leadership is all about.
The parentless children of this state need attention. Children of hard-working parents who put their trust in day care providers need attention. Men and women who are motivated by money alone are accepting responsibility for the safekeeping of defenseless children, then shirking their duties and exposing our youth to conditions that shock the conscience. Runaways in all four corners of the state are lost and may never be found. When the oversight agency meets to discuss these topics, their notes go missing.
Guns, illegal voting and trickle-down economics are interesting and all, but it’s about time we talk about saving our children.
Blake Shuart is a Wichita attorney.