Views from Kansas: An ill-advised contract at DCF

Editor’s Note: Views from Kansas is a regular feature that highlights editorials and other viewpoints from across the state.

One of Kansas Gov.-elect Laura Kelly’s first major decisions will be whether to invite the secretary of the Department for Children and Families to stay on in her administration.

It won’t be an easy call.

Secretary Gina Meier-Hummel, who just completed her first year on the job, has done a lot of good things. She’s taken steps to shed her department’s cloak of secrecy. She’s ordered top-down studies of the agency and halted the practice of children spending nights in agency offices.

She’s done all this even though the agency is severely underfunded and relies on an outdated computer system that puts kids at risk.

But then her agency makes a decision like the one The Kansas City Star recently disclosed. Meier-Hummel’s department awarded a Florida nonprofit a four-year contract for critical family preservation services, which aim to keep children out of foster care. The nonprofit, though, is plagued by many of the same problems that DCF has struggled with in recent years.

Among them: foster kids sleeping in offices and spending too much time unsupervised after school; foster kids spending night after night in various homes, endangering their welfare; foster kids dying of abuse and neglect.

The reaction, understandably, is one of bewilderment and frustration.

“As a state, we’re going to hire a company with the exact same headlines we’re trying to get away from?” an exasperated state Rep. Jarrod Ousley, a Merriam Democrat, asked when told of the hire. “I thought we were trying to be better.”

“Oh, brother. I’m disappointed to hear that,” said House Majority Leader Don Hineman, a Dighton Republican.

As The Star reported, Eckerd Connects will provide family preservation services in three of Kansas’ four regions. The one region that Eckerd won’t oversee is the Kansas City area.

In Florida, the problems were so severe that the state threatened to take away Eckerd’s $77 million annual contract unless it developed a corrective plan.

DCF has acknowledged that it was aware of Eckerd’s issues in Florida. But officials noted that the nonprofit wasn’t awarded a grant for foster care but for family preservation. Eckerd already provides some services in Kansas and reportedly has been doing a good job.

DCF officials also insisted that comparing Florida foster care services with Kansas family preservation isn’t valid because they are different. “They will be serving Kansas children and families in a completely different way,” a DCF spokesman said.

That’s hardly comforting, given that we’re talking about kids under enormous stress now dealing with an agency with a lousy track record. With Meier-Hummel’s future uncertain, this decision doesn’t inspire confidence.

— Originally published in The Kansas City Star


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