The new secretary of the Kansas Department for Children and Families has come in promising a thorough review of the agency, staffing changes and more accountability following allegations and outrage about problems in the state’s foster care system.
Gina Meier-Hummel, who started the job Dec. 1, has been reluctant to criticize her predecessor but has said she wants to change the tone of the agency. She has promised more transparency and accountability in confronting issues like children sleeping in social worker’s offices, running away from their foster homes and dying while in the state’s care.
Meier-Hummel has an extensive background in child welfare and has been active on a task force the Legislature established earlier this year to look into issues with the Kansas child welfare system.
In October task force members showed concern when they learned that then-DCF Secretary Phyllis Gilmore appeared to be unaware that three girls had been missing from their foster placement in Tonganoxie for more than a month. Meier-Hummel addressed this issue when her nomination was announced, saying she wanted a list every morning of which kids were missing and information about their cases.
Here are excerpts from an interview with Meier-Hummel after her first week at DCF.
On learning in October that there were more than 70 kids missing from their foster care placements:
It was really concerning to me, and it has certainly been a top priority since I’ve gotten the office. I have gotten the daily report we talked about. We are looking — actively looking — working with law enforcement for some of these kids, and working with our contractors to find all of them and make sure their needs are being met.
I think I was surprised [by the number]. Having worked in the field, I know that kids leave placements. You certainly hope that kids don’t leave placements, you certainly want them to feel comfortable. I mean, you recognize that these are kids that have had very traumatic histories, some of them, but we need to then be trying to be responsive to those needs. So what is it that they need that’s causing them to want to do those things? And how can we better meet their needs?
On kids sleeping in social workers’ offices when foster care contractors can’t find placements that meet their needs:
We’ve already started having those conversations, as well, with the contractors, and we’re getting daily reports now. If there are kids, they need to tell us right away how many? Why? What are they doing to try to address this? We’ve asked them for corrective action plans around, “What are you doing to make sure this isn’t happening again?” We have a responsibility to come alongside our contractors and help create options for kids if that’s what’s needed.
If it’s that we don’t have beds or we don’t have capacity to meet the needs of the kids we currently serve, then we have to help them create that capacity.
On what these two issues indicate about the agency as a whole:
We have a lot of kids in custody. We have a record number of children in out-of-home care. And I think one of the things that we have to do differently is we have to work to strengthen families so kids can remain safely with their own families, and I think that’s a great opportunity for us to do more prevention work. We need to look at our assessment in making sure that we’re removing the right kids and then again look at our timeliness to serving kids and families. So are we acting with a sense of urgency? Are there barriers? So there’s a wide range of things we can do to make the system more responsive to the needs of Kansas families.
On whether she agrees with DCF’s “self-reliance” philosophy for food stamps and cash assistance:
I think certainly most folks don’t want to be dependent on state government, and most folks want to be independent and living on their own accord, so I absolutely think that’s the right approach.
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.