Kansas welfare chief seeks more money for preventing abuse

TOPEKA, Kan. — Kansas’ top child welfare official on Monday proposed $24 million in additional spending over three years and said her agency needs to hire dozens of workers who are not licensed social workers to conduct investigations into reports of abuse and neglect.

The measures outlined by Gina Meier-Hummel, secretary of the state Department for Children and Families, would be on top of the two-year, $16.5 million package she and Republican Gov. Jeff Colyer announced in January. Their first plan was designed to address ongoing problems in the state’s foster care system.

Meier-Hummel became DCF secretary in December, after months of growing criticism of the department and her predecessor in the wake of several high-profile deaths of children in abusive homes.

Meier-Hummel acknowledged that dozens of children in state custody still slept in foster care contractors’ offices overnight temporarily in recent months, even after she publicly declared it an “unacceptable” practice. As of Monday morning, the state still had 74 runaway foster children missing, with number as high as 90 in recent months.

The secretary said the department is working on speeding up children’s placement with relatives or foster homes. But she said DCF has more than 200 child protective services jobs open and cannot find enough licensed social workers to fill them — prompting its plan to hire workers with four-year college degrees outside of social work.

“I think it’s more concerning not to have the positions filled,” she said.

Much of the $24 million sought by DCF would allow it to improve the child welfare system’s information technology systems. It also would allow the department to give child protective services workers pay raises — and pay more to new workers, including the non-social workers.

Legislators would consider the extra spending after returning from their annual spring break Thursday to wrap up their business for the year.

Meier-Hummel said DCF can change its hiring practices on its own. She said Kansas is among a handful of states hiring only licensed social workers for protective services and that consultants have advised it to make the change.

But Democratic state Sen. Laura Kelly expressed concern, saying social workers are trained to understand family dynamics and using other workers “can backfire in a lot of ways.”

Lawmakers also were upset to learn last year that dozens of children in the state’s care had to sleep overnight in contractors’ offices this year because foster homes weren’t immediately available and that dozens were reported missing from the state’s foster care system. The Kansas City Star reported this weekend that the problems have persisted.

“That means we’re not going in the right direction,” Kelly said Monday.

Meier-Hummel told reporters that DCF is making progress in addressing the problems.