The new head of Kansas’ troubled child welfare agency got a unanimous vote of confidence from a legislative committee Friday.
Even the agency's staunchest critics think she’ll sail through a confirmation vote from the full Senate to head the Department for Children and Families.
“I can’t imagine that she will” face any serious opposition, said Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat running for governor, and one of several lawmakers who called for the ouster of Meier-Hummel’s predecessor, former DCF Secretary Phyllis Gilmore.
The agency that Meier-Hummel inherited from Gilmore in December had lost the trust of lawmakers over its handling of high-profile child-abuse death cases and a series of breakdowns in the foster care system. The problems generated headlines about missing children and kids sleeping on office couches while awaiting placement.
Lawmakers credit Meier-Hummel, a social worker, for pressing on multiple fronts to reform the agency’s internal processes, its culture and its public image.
“You name it, we’re working on it,” Meier-Hummel told members of the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee before they voted to recommend her confirmation.
Some in the Legislature want her to push even more aggressively and say a bill backed by DCF that would make its actions more transparent doesn’t go far enough. Yet, most lawmakers see progress.
“If anybody can reform DCF and put it back on the right track Secretary Meier-Hummel is the person,” Kelly said. “This agency has nowhere to go but up.”
With backing from Republican Gov. Jeff Colyer, Meier-Hummel has asked lawmakers to increase the agency’s budget by $16.5 million over the next two years. The money is needed, she said, to beef up the agency’s family preservation and child-abuse prevention programs.
The 2017 case of a 3-year-old Wichita boy found dead and encased in concrete in the home his mother shared with her live-in boyfriend illustrates both the challenges Meier-Hummel confronts and the reform steps she is taking.
Records recently released to news organizations, months after they were requested, showed that multiple calls were made to an abuse hotline before the boy died. They also revealed that DCF staff altered documents to conceal that information from at least one of those hotline calls wasn’t relayed to the social worker on the case.
In response to that case and others, Meier-Hummel is urging lawmakers to pass a bill that would require DCF to make some information public when a child dies from abuse or neglect. Among other things, the agency would have to disclose whether it received reports of abuse and what it did in response.
Testifying this week to the House Judiciary Committee, which is working on the bill, Meier-Hummel promised there will be no more altering and destruction of documents.
“We will not tolerate anything that is dishonest in any way,” she said, indicating that her investigation into the practice had led to the dismissal of some top staff.
Rep. Blaine Finch, an Ottawa Republican and chair of the committee, said he expects the panel to send some version of the bill to the full House late next week.
“This is a step in the right direction,” Finch said. “There are many more to take.”
Jim McLean is managing director of KMUW's Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio and KCUR covering health, education and politics in Kansas. Follow him on Twitter @jmcleanks.
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