Topeka Vowing to make changes in both the practices and culture at the state’s child welfare agency, Gina Meier-Hummel, of Lawrence, was announced Wednesday as the state’s next secretary of the troubled Department for Children and Families.
The announcement was made by Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer.
“The safety of our kids is paramount,” Colyer said during a news conference to introduce Meier-Hummel. “Sleeping in offices, or losing kids, is not acceptable.”
Meier-Hummel is currently director of the Children’s Shelter in Lawrence, formerly called The Shelter Inc., a social service agency that provides emergency shelter and longer-term residential care for children in the Douglas County area.
She is also a member of a special task force that the Kansas Legislature established this year to review the entire privatized child welfare system in Kansas in the wake of troubling reports about children who have died or been abused, or who have gone missing, while in foster care.
It was during recent meetings of that task force when officials from the contractors managing the foster care system confirmed that more than 70 children in their custody were missing. They also reported that it has been common in emergency situations for case workers to have children sleep in the agency’s office overnight if no bed space was available anywhere else.
It was then that bipartisan pressure began building on current DCF Secretary Phyllis Gilmore to resign. Gilmore recently announced that she would retire Dec. 1.
Meier-Hummel said she planned to start making immediate changes at the agency.
“I plan to start right away with a top-to-bottom review to get a clear picture where the agency can improve,” she said. “Under my leadership, you can expect to see a number of changes immediately, particularly in child welfare. Right off the bat, you should expect to see some staffing changes.”
As part of that review, Meier-Hummel said, she plans to take a new look at the whole idea of a privatized child welfare system in which outside nonproft agencies manage the system on contract with the state.
Although she did not say she would advocate repealing that system and returning to a state-operated child welfare program, both she and Colyer did say that the contractors would be held accountable for their performance.
“In 1998, Kansas moved to a privatized child welfare system,” Meier-Hummel said. “I’ve served under that system. I know that system well, but it demands contractor accountability for performance, especially on behalf of the youth we serve.”
Among other things, Meier-Hummel said she planned to get daily reports about missing foster care children and to appoint someone who would be specifically in charge of locating them.
She also said she intended to make DCF more open and transparent than it has been under Gilmore, who was frequently criticized by legislators for being reluctant to share information or to accept criticism.
“For example, we will be reviewing recent child deaths that have occurred, and those that have occurred while in state custody, and those that have occurred when they’ve been called into the hotline” she said. “We want to make sure we are responding effectively and efficiently to the concerns, especially when it comes to children’s care. If that means we have to talk to our attorneys and review policies and procedures, we certainly will do that, and we will be as transparent as we can be in that process.”
Colyer, who is preparing to take over as governor at any time, pending current Gov. Sam Brownback being confirmed for a diplomatic post in the Trump administration, said he planned to make additional changes once he becomes governor, but he would not be more specific.
“Today’s announcement is the first of many key changes that we will be rolling out as we improve how Kansas government operates,” he said.
Rep. Dan Hawkins, R-Wichita, who chairs the House Health and Human Services Committee, said he supported Meier-Hummel’s appointment, calling her “the right person at the right time to make these changes.”
Meier-Hummel said she planned step into the secretary’s job on Dec. 1, the day Gilmore’s retirement becomes effective. She said Chris Roy, who is currently assistant director at the Children’s Shelter, will take over as shelter director at that time.