Statehouse candidates on the issues: The future of the Kansas Department of Children and Families

Gina Meier-Hummel was appointed DCF secretary last year after investigations found widespread problems with the agency. Photo credit Kansas Department of Children and Families.

Today we’re running the fourth set of responses to our questionnaire for the area statehouse candidates whose names will be on the primary ballots.

Here’s item number four:

The Kansas Department of Children and Families has been under fire in recent months after reports about widespread dysfunction, including lax oversight that led to the extreme abuse and neglect of kids in state custody. What needs to be done to improve DCF?

District 17

Rep. Tom Cox (Republican)

Did not respond

Jim Eschrich

Get a new leadership/management team in there. Let them assess things and make recommendations to the Governor and Legislature regarding staffing needs, pay increases, etc. And for god’s sake if there are incompetent people employed there, unemploy them… fast! Also, without knowing the particulars, I am generally supportive of efforts to add more transparency to how government agencies do their business… and yes, that includes DCF.

District 18

Eric Jenkins (Republican)

I have deep concerns about the efficacy of the Kansas Department of Children and Families. I have dealt with this agency multiple times with concerns relating to my own grandchildren. I have been aghast at the poor responsiveness of this agency and their failure to (in too many cases) protect children who are neglected or abused. This agency needs an overhaul and parents who fail to meet their responsibilities need to be held accountable. I believe that this agency is in dire need of a top-to-bottom review of policies, regulations and legislation.

Cathy Gordon (Republican)

Again, as a health care provider in “prenatal care, birth and care of women”; I see more and more women giving birth to babies and no paternity papers are filed. Thirty-three percent of the babies born in Kansas are Medicaid babies. My recommendation is simple. When one is applying for Medicaid assistance, paternity papers must be completed and presented, at the same time. Every child deserves to have a responsible father in his/her life. In addition, include state paternity papers for every family if the mother is not married, while completing a birth certificate, regardless of their insurance status. I believe with responsible fathers, much of the concerns will decrease.

Rep. Cindy Neighbor (Democrat)

Not only has there been a serious lack of transparency, we have a serious shortage of social workers and foster homes. This is most prevalent in teens or those who have special needs. We must restore proper funding, improve the technology systems for better communication, and require a much higher level of transparency.

Andy Hurla (Democrat)

Kansas needs healthy families.


District 22

Rep. Nancy Lusk (Democrat)

We owe it to the foster children in the state’s care to improve the accountability of the Kansas Department of Children and Seniors and to repair its many problems. It is unacceptable to have 70 kids unaccounted for and missing at any one time from the foster-care system, and to have excessive numbers of foster kids sleeping overnight in offices instead of homes. The most grievous tragedies have been the deaths of the children which have occurred over the past two years. The agency’s lack of transparency and apparent cover-up attempts of the circumstances of those deaths were inexcusable.

Since being appointed last winter, new DCF Secretary Gina Meier-Hummel has been credited for improving the culture and trajectory of the department (though bettering the dreadful performance of the previous secretary, Phyllis Gilmore, is a low bar). Some problems may be attributable to the privatization of the state’s foster care system back in the late 1990’s, but whatever the history, things need to improve. We need to reaffirm the state’s commitment to the foster children in our care.

The legislature cannot lay all of the fault for the deficiencies of the department because the legislature’s own negligent underfunding has contributed to the problems. About 30 percent of DCF’s child protective services jobs have been left unfilled and need to be filled with fully licensed social workers. With so many vacancies, no wonder that there have been so many problems. (In my answer to question #1 above, I referred to the dismantlement of our state government and this is a prime example).

Sufficient funding and greater oversight by the legislature are critical.

Michael L. Coleman III (Democrat)

Did not respond.

District 29

Peggy Galvin (Republican)

Budget cuts have forced the department to reduce the qualifications required to work with families and a social work degree is no longer required. Many positions require only a high school diploma. Working with families in dire situations and children who have experienced trauma requires specialized training and skills. DCF should be funded better to:

  • Attract degreed social workers and certified counseling professionals
  • Increase the reimbursement rate for foster care to encourage more Kansans to open their homes to children in need, and
  • Develop a system to ensure we know where every child is and the quality of their living situation.

Children are sleeping in department offices and the whereabouts of more than 70 kids are unknown. These are wards of the state – they are our responsibility. The argument that this is normal as a percentage of the total foster population, but that does not make it right, it is inexcusable. There must be accountability for these atrocities and a change in cabinet leadership was the first step in the right direction.

James Todd (Republican)

The solutions to department failures, such as those that occurred at DCF, are easy to state and difficult to implement. The next Governor needs to do a review of the agency beginning with the current department head and determine if they are up to the task of fixing the problems facing DCF. If not, then a replacement should be found. The Legislature needs to carry out it’s oversight role by reviewing changes made by the next governor, and using it’s investigative powers in standing committees that oversea matter related to children to monitor improvement. Legislative post audit can carry out audits to ensure progress is made to improve the situation at DCF. None of these things happen over night and they require diligence from all parties involved. I believe everyone involved in the state government, Republicans and Democrats, want to protect the well-being of children under state supervision and there will be a good-faith effort to improve DCF.

District 30

Matthew Calcara (Democrat)

While the new head of DCF is an improvement over Phyllis Gilmore, that is unfortunately not saying much. DCF needs to clarify its policies regarding the placement of foster children with families in such a way as to ensure that the needs of kids come first–not those of legislators looking to advance a narrow, discriminatory religious agenda.

The DCF task force that was put together to oversee DCF should be allowed to do its work and its recommendations should be implemented as swiftly as possible. Legislators should also listen to local leaders like Rep. Jarrod Ousley (D-Merriam) and Rep. Linda Gallagher (R-Shawnee) who have been instrumental in providing oversight on DCF. Sometimes, being a leader means knowing when to follow.
If elected, I would follow their lead in figuring out the most appropriate next steps for DCF.

In any reform of DCF, the health and well-being of Kansas foster kids should be paramount. If we can keep the focus on that idea, I think we can begin to make progress in developing a culture of safety and accountability at DCF.

Brandon Woodard (Democrat)

While some improvements in the Kansas Department of Children and Families have been made, the need for new administration is clear. Under this DCF Secretary, we’ve devalued those in the social work profession by hiring unlicensed social workers, which will lead to high turnover and prevent the continuity our kids in foster care deserve. Further, DCF has decided to start contracting directly with adoption and foster care agencies, potentially funding agencies directly who discriminate against LGBT couples. These problems aside, I’ve been encouraged to see the bipartisan work happening on the Committee on Children and Seniors and the Foster Care Task Force led by Rep. Jarrod Ousley and Rep. Linda Gallagher to overhaul DCF. I support additional oversight of DCF and believe that further investments must be made to protect kids in state custody, and that we are not using tax dollars to discriminate against Kansans.

Wendy Bingesser (Republican)

I have great concerns about way the Kansas Department of Children and Families has been proceeding. It is never acceptable for children in state custody to be suffering from neglect and abuse. It is reprehensible for children to be dying in state custody from this neglect and abuse.

In June, the department reported that it had 76 vacant positions in child protection. Protection of our children should be one of the central roles of state government. The state has decided to solve this problem by loosening the required qualifications for the positions to allow applicants with four-year degrees in similar fields. This is a productive short-term solution, but the Department should analyze why this staff shortage is occurring and seek remedies to attract licensed social workers. This may include bringing salaries up to the industrial average. Having more bodies on the job will help to cut down on the excessive caseloads that current caseworkers are having to face.

With more than 7,000 children in the foster care system it is imperative that we know where each child is located. Missing even one child is a crisis. We are missing over 70 children. This is absolutely heartbreaking and demonstrates a complete and total failure of our state government. Enhanced legislative oversight is a must in the next term to ensure the problems we are facing do not continue. I will hold the Department of Children and Families accountable, because our kids should be our number one priority.

Colleen Webster (Republican)

The state needs to provide more oversight of the contractors of DCF and choose the next contract cycle of contractors very carefully. We must lower the case loads of our social workers. They cannot give the children the attention each one needs and manage all the cases. Therefore, we need to hire more social workers and case managers. The high turnover and stress of employees due to being overworked mandates pay increases that would retain our staff.

Check back tomorrow for the candidates’ responses to our fourth item:

“Last session, the legislature approved a bill that allows religion-based adoption agencies to refuse placing children with LGBT couples. Do you support this legislation? Why or why not?”