TOPEKA — A former deputy director of the Kansas Department for Children and Families alleges the agency has a record of systematically underreporting child fatalities and of providing inaccurate information to the state’s Child Death Review Board.
The allegations emerged as new DCF Secretary Gina Meier-Hummel and Gov. Jeff Colyer publicly acknowledged mistakes were made in the past and that the administration was taking an aggressive approach to improving operations at DCF. DCF’s top administrator in Wichita was recently fired, and the agency conceded DCF documents were inappropriately altered regarding a 3-year-old Wichita boy found encased in concrete.
“We can’t solve this problem completely," said Colyer, who has recommended new spending for DCF child services. "Evil exists in this world. We can do a much better job. I want to make sure that we are.”
The allegations by former DCF deputy director Dianne Keech relate to activities at DCF from 2013 to 2015, when the agency's child-welfare programs were under the direction of Secretary Phyllis Gilmore, who retired about two months before Gov. Sam Brownback resigned in January.
Keech, a 16-year Wyandotte County juvenile court officer before being hired as DCF deputy director, said agency officials advised employees to avoid communicating by email about mistakes dealing with child-abuse cases. Instead, she said, staff members were to communicate by phone or with handwritten notes later shredded.
The unconventional method of exchanging information was intended to avoid a paper trail that might be useful to plaintiffs’ attorneys if DCF were sued, she said.
Keech said DCF reported seven fatalities to the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data Base in 2013. However, Keech said she reviewed internal DCF reports on at least 20 fatalities that year.
Keech also alleged DCF provided inaccurate, incomplete and false information to the Kansas State Child Death Review Board, which publishes findings on the state attorney general’s website.
“They omit a lot, and they don’t give accurate summaries,” said Keech, who served on the death review board.
Meier-Hummel, who replaced Gilmore at DCF in December, said she wasn't aware of complaints the board was misled. She said DCF was committed to thoroughly examining child deaths and near-deaths.
“Yes. We’re looking at them very seriously,” Meier-Hummel said.
Republican and Democratic legislators' skepticism about DCF’s capabilities is widespread, but some lawmakers expressed willingness to give Meier-Hummel time to respond to DCF’s internal problems.
Rep. Monica Murnan, D-Pittsburg, said warning signs of crisis were evident long ago to professionals in the field.
“If we are surprised, we haven’t been paying attention, and shame on us. People in the field saw it coming,” she said.
Sen. Vicki Schmidt, a Topeka Republican who chairs the Senate’s health committee, said she was disturbed to discover the depth of DCF’s failings, especially the hidden problem of missing foster children, before Meier-Hummel's appointment.
“It’s early. She’s (Meier-Hummel) answered tough questions, even though we haven’t liked all the answers. We're getting more information out of DCF,” Schmidt said.
House Minority Leader Jim Ward, D-Wichita, said reforming DCF required an accounting of previous agency misconduct, replacement of personnel who failed to serve interests of vulnerable children and rejection of a belief that efficiency demanded lower state investment in oversight of children.
“There is a systemic cancer that has been going through that agency for the last seven years. I think some incredibly bad things have happened that we don’t know about,” Ward said.
Colyer earmarked money to hire 20 new child welfare personnel, but DCF has more than 300 job vacancies.
The state’s child support caseload is expected to grow from 140,000 in 2017 to 147,100 in the fiscal year starting July 1. The average number of children in foster care in Kansas is anticipated to expand from 6,300 in the previous fiscal year to 6,800 in the upcoming fiscal year.
In addition to high-profile child deaths, DCF has been criticized for reluctance to acknowledge children under state care were sleeping in offices of contractors and that an average of 70 children in foster care were missing.
Meier-Hummel said the agency was bringing in experts to identify strengths, weaknesses and opportunities for improvement. Money has been set aside to secure beds for hard-to-place children who have been sleeping in contractors’ offices, she said.
“This is one of the areas that is a huge priority,” she said.
Meier-Hummel said DCF was hobbled by an antiquated child welfare computer system that required an employee to delve into a half-dozen systems to investigate a claim of abuse.
With fanfare in December, Colyer and Meier-Hummel announced plans to introduce contents of House Bill 2728. The bill requires disclosure of information about the state government’s role in supervision of children who died of alleged abuse or neglect.
“Hopefully it won’t happen, but when it does happen, we’ll be able to give information out more quickly about our involvement,” Meier-Hummel said.
Keech, who left DCF in 2015, said the bill was a hollow bid to make the agency appear transparent.
“This truly is a red-herring bill,” Keech said. “Nothing in this bill would help the community judge if good child protection practices are being employed. You’re still relying on DCF to be honest.”
She said the attorney general’s office, in collaboration with the Child Death Review Board, should be granted new authority to review DCF activities with access to the agency's electronic and paper records.