If Gov. Sam Brownback's plan to shut down the Lawrence office of the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services goes into effect, it will harm many vulnerable Kansans, social workers and law enforcement officials said Saturday.
For example, Douglas County District Attorney Charles Branson said police must have a social worker accompany them if they go into a school to interview an alleged victim of sexual abuse.
The decision by SRS Secretary Robert Siedlecki Jr. to shut down the Lawrence office will make it more difficult to get a social worker in these instances, Branson said.
"I'm just very fearful that we are going to miss a lot of people who are in need of care," Branson said. "We have children going through horrific instances in their lives, and we have small windows to go in and make a difference, and the governor and secretary have closed that window on us," he said.
He said without the timely availability of an SRS social worker, the child could face having to return to his or her abuser at the end of the school day before police could intervene.
Branson's comments were made during a meeting at the Lawrence Public Library that was attended by a packed crowd of about 150 people, many of whom had to stand or sit in adjacent rooms.
Those in attendance expressed anger and shock at the Brownback administration's decision announced July 1 to close nine SRS offices, with Lawrence being the largest one by far. The closures would take effect within three months. Siedlecki has said the 87 employees will be able to get jobs at other SRS offices.
Brownback and Siedlecki have said the closures are needed to save money during tight budget times, and that those receiving SRS services in Lawrence can continue to get assistance by accessing them online or traveling to offices in Topeka, Overland Park or Ottawa. Brownback has noted that Lawrence is served by several four-lane roads.
Many at the meeting said that was unrealistic.
Gayle Sigurdson of Lawrence said she thought the closure of SRS offices was intended to cut state spending by making it more difficult for people to get help.
She also said the way Siedlecki announced the closures without any public meetings to gain input was a "suspension of the Democratic process."
"These closures were made without public comment, or participation of our local legislators and without any formal appeals process," she said.
She said she feared Brownback's statement on Friday when he said he may consider options to the closures was "lip service."
The meeting was held by the Douglas County Democratic Party. Former SRS Secretary Robert Harder had been scheduled to speak several weeks ago prior to the announced closures.
Harder, who has held the position of SRS secretary the longest in state history, said the prevailing political climate at the Statehouse represented a departure from decades of bi-partisan support for social services.
Of the past legislative session, which produced massive cuts to social services, he said, "I would have to say, without question, it was absolutely the meanest, toughest session that I have observed in my 50 years," of being around Kansas politics.
He said the assertion that people could receive SRS services online was not plausible. Applications for medical assistance are not available online, and the application for cash assistance is 16 pages long, he said.
Harder added that social service advocates are not opposed to change but they want change in a careful, thought out way.
Steve Ruttinger of Lawrence said he was dismayed by the Brownback administration's layoffs of experienced staff at SRS and replacing them with those lacking experienced. "They profess this connection to God but there is nothing Christian about it," he said.
The Democratic members of the Douglas County legislative delegation urged the crowd to continue to contact Brownback's office to voice their disapproval and attend Monday's meeting at 7 p.m. at Plymouth Congregational Church to discuss ways to try to reverse the closure decision.
"People in government make mistakes from time to time and they need to be called on it, and this is a classic example," said House Minority Leader Paul Davis, D-Lawrence.