TOPEKA — Democratic Gov.-elect Laura Kelly appointed an interim secretary Thursday to lead two Cabinet agencies serving Kansas children, the disabled, mentally ill and elderly that have been a source of persistent management controversy under Govs. Jeff Colyer and Sam Brownback.
Laura Howard, an attorney and the director of the Public Management Center in the School of Public Affairs and Administration at the University of Kansas, will be interim secretary of the Kansas Department for Children and Families and the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services.
Kelly, who will be sworn into office on Jan. 14, said Howard was the right person to lead DCF and KDADS at "this challenging time." The incoming governor said DCF, which has responsibility for Kansas foster children, was an agency "dismantled by ideology and mismanagement."
"We need a leader to get to work on Day 1 to ensure our most vulnerable Kansans are safe," said Kelly, a Topeka state senator since 2005.
DCF struggled under a record number of children in a foster care system that lacked necessary social workers. Legislators expressed concern about the death of children in state care, hard-to-place kids sleeping in offices of state contractors and dozens of runaway or missing foster children. At KDADS, patient and staff safety at the state mental hospitals was a significant issue.
It was the first agency appointment by Kelly other than a decision to retain the superintendent of the Kansas Highway Patrol and the director of the Kansas fire marshal's office.
Kelly urged the Colyer administration to delay implementation of new foster care and family preservation grant programs announced in December. Kelly described the grants as no-bid deals that bypassed the state's official procurement process.
"Despite our best efforts during the transition, accurate and forthright information from current DCF leadership was hard to come by. In the coming months, our team will work to evaluate the current programs and contracts to determine the best path forward for our children and families," Kelly said.
In a rebuttal statement, outgoing DCF Secretary Gina Meier-Hummel agreed to put a hold on the grants. Meier-Hummel, hired by Colyer, defended the internal process of selecting the grant recipients. The new four-year grants — not contracts — announced in December would add $35 million to the state's annual cost of caring for abused or neglected children.
The unilateral grants awarded by Meier-Hummel were questioned by Kelly and other lawmakers because the deals weren't vetted by the Kansas Department of Administration. DCF selected two private contractors to perform interventions to help keep families together and chose four organizations to handle case management of children in state care.
"These new grants are necessary to improve child welfare in Kansas and are in the absolute best interest for Kansas children and families," Meier-Hummel said. "With that being said, DCF has been fully transparent and forthcoming with information about the grants with Gov.-elect Kelly’s transition team, and we will continue to collaborate with them and hold the grants, as has been requested."
Howard, picked by Kelly to replace Meier-Hummel and KDADS Secretary Tim Keck, previously worked as regional administrator of substance abuse and mental health services within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. She also was at the former state Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services for 15 years.
"In the last 18 months, I’ve been impressed by Laura Kelly’s ability to ask tough questions and demand accountability,” she said. "I am pleased to be a part of this team dedicated to rebuilding our state agencies."