Officials with the Kansas Department for Children and Families have been busy, and for good reason.
DCF Secretary Gina Meier-Hummel recently led a tour of DCF offices throughout Kansas that generated important feedback from health professionals, foster parents, representatives of law enforcement and the courts, and others involved in helping at-risk youngsters.
Input was gathered to help determine what has and hasn’t been effective in the agency in charge of child welfare.
Meier-Hummel took charge of the DCF in December 2017, replacing embattled secretary Phyllis Gilmore amid allegations of neglect, abuse and a lack of accountability in the agency. The new secretary made a number of leadership and policy changes, and her interest in ongoing, thorough review of every aspect of the system was welcome. A legislative task force also was established to identify potential remedies in an agency charged with helping families and keeping children safe.
One problem that’s garnered attention is the number of missing children who were placed in foster care. In August 2017, the DCF couldn’t account for 86 missing or runaway youngsters. This past August, the total dropped to 63. While a notable decrease, that’s still too many youngsters whose whereabouts were unknown.
During the statewide tour, Meier-Hummel cited the challenge of high caseloads for DCF staff, and especially in more populous areas of Kansas. Adequate employee levels are a basic requirement to improve the agency’s performance and outcomes for children. To that end, increased funding to recruit and retain capable staff members is in order.
But simply allocating more dollars to the DCF won’t solve far-reaching problems. There’s also a pressing need for still greater transparency and objective review of incidents, to include the most alarming in child abuse-related deaths.
DCF caseworkers are overloaded, and employee training and retention efforts have come up short. Because vulnerable children have been endangered, the situation demands the utmost attention from the next governor and adequate support for DCF services. State Sen. Laura Kelly, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, has acknowledged as much as a high priority.
That said, all involved in Topeka have an obligation to focus more on ways to mend a dysfunctional child welfare system in a state that can and must do better.