February 29th, 2024
L&T Opinions Page

A SECOND OPINION, The Topeka Capital-Journal


One of the best comments attributable to the gubernatorial campaign of Kris Kobach came last week at the start of the Legislature's wrapup session.

Kobach's running mate, Wink Hartman — himself an early candidate to become the Republican nominee for governor — took into account recurring problems with the Kansas Department for Children and Families. Hartman then noted a recent request by DCF for almost $24 million, as well as the ability to add 200 additional unlicensed workers to help with investigative work conducted for the potential placement of children in foster care.

"As a business owner,? Hartman said, "I would never put up with the mismanagement we've seen at DCF. If an employee consistently fails to do their job, hides from accountability and then asks for a raise so they can continue to do more of the same, most private-sector businesses would probably fire them on the spot.?

This is the climate first-year DCF Secretary Gina Meier-Hummel has been tasked with changing. She has apparently gained the trust of Gov. Jeff Colyer, who supports the funding proposal. The additional funding would conceivably help attract applicants to fill vacancies Meier-Hummel said totaled "30 percent of our child protection services.? Raises for licensed social workers on staff would also be administered as part of the funding package.

Nonetheless, Hartman makes a valid point. DCF has not yet earned the trust of Kansans after as many as 90 children in the foster care system were found to be missing. Most alarming, accounts surfaced of deaths of some children going unreported, as well as inappropriate alterations made to some documents.

Skepticism regarding DCF exists within both political parties. A Democrat running for governor, House Minority Leader Jim Ward, made a strong point last month when he demanded an accounting of previous misconduct.

"There is a systemic cancer that has been going through that agency for the last seven years. I think some incredibly bad things have happened that we don't know about,? Ward said.

Even if Meier-Hummel is on the right track attempting to correct flaws found at DCF, a large appropriation to the agency seems reckless. Of particular concern is the use of unlicensed workers involving themselves with the DCF caseload. While it would be beneficial to reduce the strain that licensed social workers face, those with less training could be prone to making poor judgments.

Some training would at least be provided for the additional unlicensed workers, who Meier-Hummel said would be accompanied by licensed supervisors. In addition, those who are hired would be required to have four-year degrees in fields similar to social work. Still, how many such workers would be willing to work for a Kansas agency with such a troubled reputation?

There is little doubt DCF has been underfunded, just like many programs that were hurt by tax cuts imposed in 2012 as part of an economic plan endorsed by former Gov. Sam Brownback.

That is where Hartman, and the candidate (Kobach) he was quick to support after dropping out of the race after the first Republican forum, are wrong. They embrace the renewed implementation of tax cuts, a notion also tossed around at the wrapup session by conservative legislators.

Accountability, however, is another matter and a sensible approach when it comes to funding DCF. This is particularly true because Meier-Hummel supports legislation seeking legal protection for faith-based groups in child placement decisions. The legislation would potentially make it more difficult for gay couples to become foster parents.

A discriminatory bill excluding families from child placement does not seem like the best option for an agency that sometimes encounters problems locating homes for kids and that could potentially see an increase in foster children if granted more personnel to assist with a burdensome caseload.

Licensed state social workers deserve raises for the stressful and somber work they perform visiting homes with children who need to be placed in foster care. Additional funding is needed for DCF. However, the agency needs to prove it can be trustworthy and accountable before an increase the size of the current proposal can be endorsed.

GUEST COLUMN, Kim Baldwin, Kansas Farm Bureau


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