The well-being of children in her care is Gina Meier-Hummel’s highest priority.
That is the consensus on the new secretary for the Kansas Department for Children and Families among people who have worked with her. And it’s why stakeholders in the state’s child welfare system are hopeful that her appointment by Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer signals a change of direction for the embattled agency.
Outgoing DCF Secretary Phyllis Gilmore has been a controversial figure. She has been criticized by stakeholders and Kansas legislators for her combative leadership style and for appearing dismissive of cases when children in the state’s care died or ran away from foster placements, citing the small percentages of both relative to the system as a whole and the state’s high ranking in safety for foster care children.
“We’re talking about 7,000 children, and we’re talking about one secretary,” Gilmore said in October in response to criticism from legislators when they learned she wasn’t aware that three girls had run away from their foster parents’ home in Tonganoxie.
Meier-Hummel, by contrast, looks at things from a child-focused perspective, said a board member at The Children’s Shelter in Lawrence, where Meier-Hummel served as executive director.
“She really speaks continually about the children,” said Wint Winter Jr., who co-founded the organization in 1984. “She doesn’t speak so much about the agency [The Children’s Shelter] or about employees of the agency, she speaks in terms of ‘What can we do for the kids?’”
Kris Roy, the shelter’s interim executive director, said that’s clear in the way Meier-Hummel interacts directly with children as well.
“Children come to our office and stay in our group homes, and she comes out and chats them up — you know, ‘How can we help you?’ and ‘How are things going?’” Roy said. “That stuff isn’t just for show, it’s ingrained in her, and you can just see that when she interacts with the kids.”
Changing the tone
Finding someone who could set a new tone on child welfare was a priority for Colyer, who selected Meier-Hummel, said spokeswoman Kara Fullmer.
“The lieutenant governor had made clear that he wasn’t happy” with Gilmore’s handling of foster children missing from the system, children sleeping in foster care contractor offices and a lack of transparency at DCF, Fullmer said.
Meier-Hummel, who started her new job Friday, said she intends to address those problems. She mentioned in particular her plans to keep track of missing kids, saying she wants an updated list of those cases on her desk every morning.
The incoming secretary has an extensive background in child welfare. She has been executive director of The Children’s Shelter since 2015, when she left the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services. Earlier she worked as director of prevention and protection services at DCF and as a social worker at KVC, one of the two contractors now managing Kansas’ privatized foster care system.
Meier-Hummel also has been active on a task force the Legislature established earlier this year to look into issues with the Kansas child welfare system.
“From the short time I’ve worked with her on the child welfare task force, it’s been very clear that she knows child welfare,” said state Sen. Laura Kelly. “Given the content of her questions, my sense is that she knows that there’s a lot of problems in it and she’s eager to solve those problems.”
Focus on family preservation
Another way Meier-Hummel may differ from Gilmore is in the priority she places on keeping children with their families.
While head of the preservation and protection services unit at DCF, she helped lead a review of the child welfare system that found children should only be removed to out-of-home care when “safety cannot be achieved” in their own homes. She’s a member of the task force’s family preservation and protection working group, which has been looking for ways to strengthen services that allow children to stay with their families.
During Gilmore’s tenure, people familiar with the foster care system have said DCF put more emphasis on finding foster and adoptive homes than on preventing child abuse and keeping children with their birth parents.
Child welfare advocates are hopeful that Meier-Hummel’s experience, priorities and service on the task force signal a new direction for DCF.
Christie Appelhanz of the Children’s Alliance of Kansas, which contracts with DCF to provide training to Kansas foster parents, said she’s encouraged by Meier-Hummel’s determination and concern for children, and thinks she can handle the challenge.
“Gina Meier-Hummel has a terrible job ahead of her,” Appelhanz said. “I think she’s up for it, but it’s kind of like the old saying, ‘If you want to make people happy, you go sell ice cream.’ You certainly don’t go be secretary of DCF.”
Madeline Fox is a reporter or the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio and KCUR covering health, education and politics. You can reach her on Twitter @maddycfox.
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