Updated Wednesday at 4:30 p.m. to include new information.
Kansas Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer’s nominee to lead the state child welfare agency said Wednesday that she plans to review it from the top down.
Gina Meier-Hummel, who currently heads a children’s crisis intervention center in Lawrence, is a member of the task force examining problems with Kansas’ privatized foster care system. Colyer announced her appointment Wednesday in Topeka.
Many of the priorities Meier-Hummel listed for her first days at the helm of the Kansas Department for Children and Families will be familiar to those who have followed the task force’s efforts. She particularly highlighted concerns about children missing from the system or sleeping on the floor of foster care contractors’ offices when placements cannot be immediately found.
“Youth sleeping in offices is unacceptable,” Meier-Hummel said. “I will work to end that practice as soon as possible.”
Meier-Hummel told Kansans to expect some staffing changes to the department “right off the bat.”
She noted her intention to have an up-to-date list of kids missing from the foster care system on her desk each morning. At the October task force meeting, lawmakers were outraged when outgoing DCF Secretary Phyllis Gilmore was seemingly unaware of three sisters from Tonganoxie who had run from their foster care placement.
Meier-Hummel also expressed her intention to increase the department’s transparency, which has been of particular concern in cases of children who died while in care.
Open to suggestions
Her focus on concerns raised by the task force was welcomed by lawmakers and other child welfare professionals who have been pushing for foster care reform in the past year.
Rep. Jerrod Ousley, a Democrat from Merriam, has been serving on the child welfare task force with Meier-Hummel and hopes her experience there means she will be open to the group’s suggestions.
“I certainly hope, and I would think, that she … would know that we’re not out for anything other than improvement and would be willing to work with us as a useful tool, already assembled,” Ousley said.
Gilmore had fought the Legislature’s formation of the task force, arguing it would put federal funding for her agency at risk. The task force’s preliminary recommendations for corrective action are due in January, with final recommendations coming in 2019.
Meier-Hummel and Ousley are both part of the task force’s working group that is looking at options for keeping kids out of the foster care system through family preservation and protective services, an area she highlighted Wednesday in discussing her plans for the department.
“We will also look to increase our efforts at prevention so that more children can safely stay with their families,” she said.
Meier-Hummel currently serves as executive director of The Children’s Shelter, a Lawrence-based crisis-intervention program for children in Douglas County and northeast Kansas. She started there in 2015 after leaving the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services, where she was a behavioral health commissioner.
Prior to her jobs with the Lawrence children’s shelter and KDADS, Meier-Hummel worked for 14 years at KVC Behavioral Healthcare, now one of the state’s two contractors for foster care.
Other welfare concerns
As DCF secretary, Meier-Hummel will oversee Kansas’s welfare programs, which have also drawn scrutiny during Gilmore’s tenure.
Policies and laws signed by Gov. Sam Brownback have led to thousands of Kansans being removed from the state’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, which has in turn raised alarm bells among nonprofit and community action groups about whether the state is providing an adequate safety net.
Meier-Hummel and Colyer declined to comment Wednesday on whether she will look to rescind or relax any of the department’s welfare policies, preferring to focus on issues of child welfare.
Sen. Barbara Bollier, a Republican from Mission Hills, said that although whoever is governor will ultimately set the policy, the appointment of a new secretary presents an opportunity for state assistance programs.
“Some of the policy that’s been put in place by Sam Brownback, to me, has been hurtful rather than helpful,” Bollier said. “I think that she [Meier-Hummel] has been close enough to the front lines to probably recognize that.”
Lt. Gov. Colyer said he consulted with Brownback in choosing Meier-Hummel. Colyer is gradually taking the reins in some areas as Brownback anticipates leaving soon for a post in the Trump administration.
“I think she’s a consummate professional, and I think an excellent choice for us,” Colyer said of Meier-Hummel’s nomination.
Her appointment requires Kansas Senate approval. Meier-Hummel said she will start work Dec. 1, when current Secretary Gilmore enters retirement.
Madeline Fox is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio, KCUR and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach her on Twitter @maddycfox.