TOPEKA, Kan. -- It's Day 6 on the job for Kansas' new head of the Department for Children and Families.
Until now, agency administrators were not open to meeting with the news media, but newly appointed Secretary Gina Meier-Hummel agreed to talk about the future of the agency with Fox 4's Shannon O’Brien.
This is Meier-Hummel's third time working at the Kansas DCF. She also has child protection experience outside of the agency, working with foster care, on the private contractor side and directly with children.
She believes she's the best person to lead the embattled agency that's under intense scrutiny.
“This is what I do,” Meier-Hummel said. “So working with kids and families and being responsive to their needs is in my core. It's what I feel I was called to so with my life."
Meier-Hummel is lifting the veil on the once secretive agency that has a history of hiding behind confidentiality to protect itself from scrutiny and exposing missteps within the DCF that put children in danger.
Welcoming Fox 4 into her office for a conversation where nothing was off limits is an example of the new direction of transparency Meier-Hummell plans to take the agency.
During Fox 4’s Problem Solvers investigation into the death of Adrian Jones, then DCF Secretary Phyllis Gilmore declined our repeated requests for an interview and would not talk to us without a camera to discuss our findings.
Meier-Hummel was eager to see what our investigation uncovered. The secretary paid close attention and took notes while watching the Fox 4 investigation that exposed DCF failures in Adrian's case.
Fox 4's exhaustive search of DCF records shows abuse that was not reported or investigated by DCF social workers and supervisors. Fox 4 also found laws broken, lies and manipulation of information by DCF workers to avoid accountability for its failures.
Former DCF Deputy Director Dianne Keech told Fox 4 Problem Solvers those failures contributed to Adrian Jones' death.
“I believe that there is criminal negligence on the part of the Department for Children and Families,” Keech said, stating that if the agency had done its job, Adrian Jones would still be alive.
“It is horrible,” said Meier-Hummel after watching the Fox 4 investigation. “I mean, you can't care about kids and watch that and not be affected."
In her short time at the top, Meier-Hummel has begun a top-to-bottom review of the agency. After watching Fox 4's investigation about the death of Adrian Jones, she said she will personally look into this case.
Although Meier-Hummel could not speak to the particulars of the Jones case until she digs into the file herself, she did address concerns in general.
"If someone has made a misstep, you certainly have to look at: Were they given the appropriate tools to do their job? Were they given appropriate supervision? Did they make a misstep?” Meier-Hummel said. “So I think you have to look at all of those various pieces, but absolutely we want folks doing the work who have the ability to do it and aren't missing things."
On at least three occasions, Fox 4's Problem Solvers investigation uncovered evidence that DCF social workers and supervisors failed to report abuse, and that's against the law.
“Folks who are mandated reporters and not doing what they need to we certainly won't hesitate to turn that in," Meier-Hummel said.
Meier-Hummel knows she has a tough job in front of her.
“I understand that we are under scrutiny," she said. "I don't pretend that overnight we are going to win the public's approval, but I do think that if we are focused on the right thing, if we own missteps when they happen, if we take corrective actions when we have made missteps and are transparent about that whole process, I hope over time people will believe that we are really aimed at doing the right thing for folks."
Foster care is also in crisis in Kansas. Over 60 children are missing right now.
The new secretary gets a report about every missing child on her desk every day and said she's working with law enforcement to find these children.
These are just some of the challenges Meier-Hummel is facing, but there are many more.
Meier-Hummel said eventually there will be a dashboard where the public can track what DCF is doing and if the agency is keeping its promise to fix child welfare in the state.