A SECOND OPINION, The Topeka Capital-Journal
Measures clearly must be taken to prevent the Kansas Department for Children and Families from obscuring evidence related to deaths of children in foster care, as well as reports that 70 children on average were missing from their foster care placements.
The situation begs for an impartial investigation into allegations of neglect, abuse and lack of accountability on the part of DCF.
Under legislation the House Judiciary Committee heard recently, DCF would be required to release basic information about child fatalities, including previous reports of mistreatment, the department’s recommendation of services for a child, date of the fatality and the child’s age and gender.
Such information should be considered a baseline requirement for an agency that has come under intense scrutiny after published reports indicated DCF employees had been urged to communicate by phone or with handwritten notes that were later shredded in order to undermine attempts by plaintiffs’ attorneys in suits potentially filed against DCF.
In her appearance before the House committee, DCF Secretary Gina Meier-Hummel said the previous practice of destroying documents was no longer applied, while steps to reduce the adulteration of reports to conceal errors had also been taken.
House Bill 2728, which received the support of three organizations seeking more transparency in state government, is designed to at least shed some light on operations at DCF. The measure stems, in part, from past failings with reporting practices one worker alleged had covered up previous fatalities.
In an interview with The Capital-Journal, former DCF deputy director Dianne Keech said seven fatalities were reported to the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data Base in 2013, though she claimed she reviewed internal DCF reports on at least 20 fatalities that year.
The sad case of 3-year-old Evan Brewer’s death sheds even more light on the failings of the agency. Documents that DCF released to the family last week showed that calls regarding the boy, whose body was found last year encased in concrete, had been made to DCF eight times. Mistakes made in the deaths of Kansas children in the foster care system prompted lawmakers to craft a bill demanding information be provided to help prevent such cases in the future.
For her part, Meier-Hummel supports the bill, as does Gov. Jeff Colyer, who has championed more transparency in state government since taking office in late January. During discussion regarding the bill, lawmakers questioned the DCF secretary, who assumed her position on Dec. 1, for information regarding changes in accountability within the agency she oversees.
That prompted the chairman of the House committee, Rep. Blaine Finch, of Ottawa, to attempt to keep the panel on task, concentrating on specifics applying to the transparency measure. “It’s not our job to oversee DCF,? Finch said.
At this point, however, citizens of Kansas are seeking answers to a system in which the depth of the agency’s failings also includes children under state care sleeping in offices of contractors. Those reports, coupled with abuse-related deaths and the unaccountability for children missing in the system, demands that state officials be diligent in tracing all problems and holding past DCF leadership accountable in order for the public regain any trust in the state’s child welfare agency.
Especially since the welfare of children is at stake and the state’s child support caseload is only expected to grow with more kids expected to be placed in foster care this fiscal year.
That caseload represents a financial burden the state can only deal with responsibly when it obtains as many facts as possible about issues legislators admit they have been apprised of for some time. The state and its lawmakers must be willing to further investigate past problems and apply procedures needed to correct flaws harmful to children in the system. Such neglect cannot be condoned.