TOPEKA — The Kansas Department for Children and Families says it will remove a new restriction banning contractors from opposing the agency on any subject after fielding questions about whether the change would stifle policy debate and contradict promises of transparency.
Revised child welfare contracts announced by the agency on Thursday also raise free speech concerns by requiring prior approval for any public statements that identify DCF. Additionally, private entities must "conspicuously acknowledge support of DCF" in any announcement about the contract.
Christie Appelhanz, executive director of the Children’s Alliance of Kansas, said there was a lot to be excited about in the contracts, which emphasize greater collaboration within the system. But she expressed concern with new lobbying rules, saying they would prohibit people working within the system from testifying before the Legislature.
The changes would prohibit those awarded a contract from lobbying "against DCF for any purpose or subject matter," or from working with other groups — such as the Children's Alliance, which represents child welfare agencies — in opposition to DCF.
"We need to be able to have differing opinions and the opportunity to talk about those differences," Appelhanz said.
As an example, Appelhanz pointed to a bill passed this year that allows for faith-based organizations to make decisions based on their religious beliefs. Her alliance opposed the bill — critics say it legalizes discrimination of gay couples, and the state needs more homes — but DCF supported the legislation as a way of securing child placement services from groups like Catholic Charities.
After hearing concerns about the lobbying restriction, the agency reversed course. DCF spokeswoman Taylor Forrest said the intent was to foster good public-private partnerships.
"After review, we will be removing the last sentence in the lobbying clause," Forrest said. "Together with our providers, we must work to communicate and promote the mission of the agency — to protect children, promote healthy families and encourage personal responsibility."
DCF said the new contracts will improve accountability, fiscal responsibility and quality of services. Foster homes and kin will be more empowered, the agency said.
"By listening to Kansans, and by taking a careful look at our systems, we created grants and contracts that we truly believe will have a positive impact on the children and families in this state,” said DCF Secretary Gina Meier-Hummel. "Overall, this is a dramatic change, creating more accountability and oversight. We will be controlling more of the process, monitoring and expecting results for the families we serve."
Included in the contracts is a section on "publicity releases" that requires materials to be sent to DCF for review a week in advance of publication.
"No unauthorized statements, comments, posts or the like identifying DCF will be allowed," the contracts say. "Any statements, comments, posts or the like identifying DCF must be approved by DCF Office of Communications."
Max Kautsch, an attorney representing the Kansas Press Association and The Topeka Capital-Journal, said controlling the message of a private contractor creates a First Amendment problem because it appears to require support for the agency in any public message.
"This regulation is viewpoint-specific and not related to any compelling state interest," Kautsch said.
He also said such control could subject the private contractor to open records or open meeting law by making them a de facto government entity. The contractor no longer can assert independence from the state, he said.
Forrest said the publicity clause "simply advises our contractors and grantees that they are not authorized to make a statement on behalf of our agency."