TOPEKA — Heartbreaking child abuse and years of political controversy compelled administrative reform of Kansas' foster care system to improve state government oversight of private organizations directly serving families and children in crisis, officials said Thursday.

Gina Meier-Hummel, hired by Gov. Jeff Colyer to overhaul the Kansas Department for Children and Families, said broadening the number of organizations involved in the state's foster care system and centralizing all child-placement decisions would bring fresh accountability to a flawed process.

"We have tried to listen and create the best child welfare system in Kansas. I truly believe that's what you're going to receive," Meier-Hummel said.

She said the transition in July 2019 to a system that relied on recipients of state grants, rather than contracts, meant two new organizations would assume responsibility for interventions designed to hold families together. Four organizations — double the current number — were chosen to share case management of children in state custody.

The new four-year grants increase the state's annual expenditures by $35 million and wed these organizations and DCF to a placement matching system expected to keep foster children closer to home. It is designed to reduce movement of kids over long distances and address claims of conflict of interest among foster care providers.

Meier-Hummel acknowledged skepticism among state lawmakers about the grants. It raised eyebrows because the DCF secretary had unilateral power to award grants, while existing contracts with DCF were vetted by the Kansas Department of Administration. Colyer blessed her alteration of the privatized foster-care system.

"I am confident that services to Kansas children and families will improve with the new child welfare grants because we have removed conflicts of interest and increased competition, bringing more providers to the table to provide quality, timely services," Colyer said.

The Legislature's child-welfare task force just completed a report documenting shortcomings at DCF and other agencies. It was inspired by a series of shocking disclosures of child abuse and neglect, as well as complaints about lost foster children and kids sleeping in business offices. In January, task force recommendations will be forwarded to the 2019 Legislature and Gov.-elect Laura Kelly.

Meier-Hummel said signing grant agreements so close to the end of the Colyer administration wasn't part of a political calculation.

"The time frame was established and we hit our mark. That has nothing to do with elections," she said.

She said change was driven by the need for infusion of more providers and less about criticism of St. Francis Ministries and KVC Kansas, which had statewide control of family preservation and case management during the administrations of Colyer and Gov. Sam Brownback. Currently, the state has 7,505 children in foster care.

"The fact of the matter is KVC and St. Francis have been providers under very difficult times," Meier-Hummel said. "We're glad they're still partners with us."

In July, St. Francis Ministries, of Wichita, will reduce its footprint to case management in Sedgwick County and the 65 counties from Emporia to the Colorado line.

"Every day our social workers, our therapists and our staff members ... take care of these children, often in a very stressed and difficult environment," said Rachel Marsh, vice president of advocacy for St. Francis Ministries.

KVC Kansas, headquartered in Olathe, will be limited to case management in Shawnee, Douglas, Johnson, Wabaunsee, Pottawatomie, Jackson, Jefferson, Marshall, Nemaha, Brown and Doniphan counties.

"Everyone has inherent worth," said KVC Kansas vice president Linda Bass. "The families that we serve face serious challenges: poverty, addiction, mental illness, divorce, parent incarceration, racism, discrimination, isolation."

DCF picked Cornerstones of Care, of Kansas City, Mo., for case management in Atchison, Leavenworth and Wyandotte counties. The 25-county area in south-central and southeast Kansas went to TFI Family Services, of Lawrence.

Meanwhile, Eckerd Connects, of Wichita, and Cornerstones of Care will handle family preservation activities for DCF. Eckerd will handle all but Douglas, Johnson, Wyandotte, Leavenworth and Atchison counties.

Meier-Hummel said loud criticism of DCF and private contractors often muffled progress. For example, she said, hard-to-place children haven't slept in business offices of state contractors since September.

"Under the best of circumstances, we're going to face criticism. It's really easy to sit on the sidelines and criticize," she said.

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