SRS says faith-based intiatives still around, just not getting as much attention

? When Robert Siedlecki Jr. took the reins of the state welfare agency, he vowed sweeping changes to establish faith-based initiatives to strengthen marriage and families.

And he certainly had the blessing of his boss, Gov. Sam Brownback.

But recently, Siedlecki’s comments indicate that effort may have changed direction.

In a meeting earlier this month with legislators, when asked about the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services’ faith-based initiative, Siedlecki said it didn’t exist.

He said SRS was doing what previous administrations had done, and that was ensuring that faith-based groups “have a seat at the table.”

He added, “They won’t be discriminated against; they won’t be discriminated for,” he said.

That seems a far cry from earlier statements.

In a pre-Memorial Day announcement, Siedlecki reorganized SRS, which included putting Anna Pilato in a new position called Deputy Secretary for Strategic Development and Faith-Based Community Initiatives.

Pilato had served for five years in the Bush administration, including as director of the Center for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

But Pilato, who is making $97,500 per year, says that in her job she wears two hats — strategic development and faith-based initiatives — and that the strategic development part of her job, which includes overseeing the design and development of staff for SRS, is by far the larger of the two.

As far as the faith-based part of her job, she says she is developing a database of faith-based and secular community groups that could be used as a resource.

In his previous experience, Siedlecki also had been senior counsel with the U.S. Justice Department’s faith-based initiative task force under Bush.

In April, Siedlecki met behind closed doors with approximately 20 representatives of groups, many of them faith-based, that shared ideas on preserving marriages and lowering divorce rates. Siedlecki, a divorced father of two, has frequently spoken about the need to preserve families.

But some of those within that group that met with Siedlecki included controversial figures who have urged that poor women marry as a way to get out of poverty, that states repeal no-fault divorce and that polygamy was more in line with common values than same-sex marriage.

Recently, SRS applied for a $6.6 million grant to pay for either faith-based or secular counseling that encouraged unwed parents to marry. Under the proposal, if the couple completed counseling, the state would pay the $86.50 marriage license fee.

But the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services rejected the grant.

Despite Siedlecki’s comments, which seem to be backing away from faith-based efforts, SRS spokeswoman Angela de Rocha said he has not changed strategy.

“There is no departure from what the secretary intended to do when he took office, which was bring more groups to the table to contribute to SRS’ mission, including faith-based organizations, such as churches,” she said.

She added, “There are no separate, free-standing faith-based initiatives. Rather, the object is to undergird SRS efforts already under way, for example, promoting adoption and working to help reduce childhood poverty. There are no new programs per se.”