Kansas Child Welfare Agency Sees Administrative Turnover As Hope For Turnaround
Some 20 administrators in the Kansas agency managing child welfare and state assistance have been promoted, fired or shifted to other posts since November.
Gina Meier-Hummel was tapped to take over the Department for Children and Families nearly six months ago and says now that the changes have been aimed at strengthening the agency as it confronts a rising caseload of children in care.
The agency also dismissed two staff members in the Wichita regional office earlier this spring in response to “concerning trends” in the region.
Several children have died in the Wichita region in recent years after DCF was alerted to their cases. They included: Evan Brewer, whose body was found encased in concrete in 2017; Conner Hawes, who drowned in a fish pond in his foster parents’ backyard the same year; and Anthony Bunn, who died earlier this month from injuries believed to be the result of abuse.
Meier-Hummel announced plans for a top-to-bottom review when she took over the office. Some of that is being done from outside the agency. The Annie E. Casey foundation is auditing how cases are first identified by the child welfare system.
But the secretary has also been hitting the road to see things for herself. She and her staff have taken questions and concerns at 18 of DCF’s 36 regional offices.
Meier-Hummel said staffing changes come both from a desire to reshape the overwhelmed agency and from concerns about some staff members’ actions.
“Part of it is wanting to make sure we have the right people in the right position and doing the right work,” she said. “But … as we’ve looked at other things, we’ve made changes because we do have concern or we’re worried about somebody not being ethical or somebody not being proactive enough.”
Some shifts have come from what her team has learned in local office visits, she said. The agency has also surveyed DCF employees and noted comments sent to her through an anonymous tip system. And administrative teams have reviewed each region by talking to staff and going through cases and staffing patterns.
In the meantime, the agency grapples with a staffing shortage. Last month, DCF announced it was opening up investigative child protection positions to people without a social work license. Meier-Hummel said at that time that a third of child protection positions were vacant, and some had been for more than a year.
But the secretary said she’s not letting concerns about vacancies stop her from removing staffers.
“If we think they can be coached up and supported to a level that we expect, then we’ll work with them to do that,” Meier-Hummel said. “If not, we’re not going to shy away from letting them go. We can’t be hampered by the workforce.”
DCF is also exploring new ways to be more nimble with its existing staff.
Kansas City regional director Tammy Thomas said they plan to use recently approved budget increases to pay for 12 new staff positions in the area. Some will form a “float” team that can travel from county to county based on the area’s needs.
For example, if Atchison County needs more staff to deal with a spike in welfare applicants, the team could set up there to help and later move on to Leavenworth or Wyandotte counties to handle child welfare cases.
The structure of DCF’s regional offices, though, will stay largely the same, Meier-Hummel said. She said she doesn’t plan to close any DCF offices, or open any new ones.
Madeline Fox is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach her on Twitter @maddycfox. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to the original post.