A new degree of transparency may be coming to the Kansas Department for Children and Families. The State’s House of Representatives just passed a bill, by unanimous vote, that would require the agency to make public information on child abuse and neglect deaths. The proposed legislation will now go to Kansas’ Senate for approval, the Kansas City Star reports.
It’s one of the high-profile reforms being pushed by Gina Meier-Hummel, who became Secretary of Kansas’ Department for Children and Families (DCF) in December 2017. A series of shocking child abuse cases have thrown the agency into disarray, as frustrated lawmakers and children’s advocates across the State call for change.
Kansas’ chief agency for the protection of children is facing a crisis, both in outcomes and public accountability. After months of investigation, the Kansas City Star released a shocking report on the condition of child protective services in the State.
Just days after his 10-year-old son’s gruesome murder, a man from south-central Kansas was visited by a social worker from the State. She wasn’t there to check up on the man’s daughter, or console him in his grief. She was there to have him sign a “gag order,” he told reporters. “She was there to ensure that I wouldn’t speak to the press. That was her only concern.”
The man’s story doesn’t depict an isolated incident. In its investigation, the Kansas City Star “found a pervasive effort inside [the Department for Children and Families] to hide behind privacy laws and internal procedures to keep the public from knowing how it operates.”
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Clues, however, have leaked out in the wake of five gruesome child deaths. In 2015, a 7-year-old boy was brutally murdered and fed to pigs by his parents. Speaking with sources inside the Department for Children and Families, legislators learned that the agency had received several calls about the boy’s safety.
The Department itself, though, failed to release information on the case. An independent reviewer from Missouri, Lori Ross, believes the DCF failed to investigate the hotline calls adequately, and sent interns, rather than licensed social workers, to perform interviews with the child’s family.
The same pattern played itself out in September 2017, when a 3-year-old boy’s body was found encased in concrete. The Department for Children and Families had been made aware of the child’s unsafe home environment, but “they still closed his case,” according to Carl Brewer, the boy’s grandfather and former mayor of Wichita.
Lawmakers have struggled to reform the child protective system in Kansas, in large part because the Department for Children and Families appears to be withholding information. Interviewed by the Kansas City Star in 2017, Republican Senator Barbara Bollier explained her frustrations: “It appears that things get hidden. I’m not convinced that [the Department for Children and Families] are totally forthcoming.”
While the DCF denies that it’s “stonewalling” lawmakers, legislators have described “surreal” hearings, convened before a task force created to tackle the agency’s problems, in which DCF attorneys talk “in circles,” touting their “achievements” in protecting children. “We are sitting there talking about a 7-year-old or a 5-year-old who died a torturous death in the system,” says Senator Laura Kelly, “and the system’s response to that is, ‘Look at all these blue ribbons we’ve won.’ Not, ‘What can we do to make sure it doesn’t happen again?’ “
Newly-appointed Secretary Gina Meier-Hummel is hoping to cast a glaring light on Kansas’ Department for Children and Families. The new bill, dubbed SB 336, would require DCF to release within seven business days information on a child’s death.
The agency would be obligated to make public the child’s age and sex, the date of the child’s death and a summary of abuse or neglect reports that were submitted to the DCF, along with the results of any investigations. Similar reporting requirements would be imposed in the event of a child’s death while in state custody, including foster care homes. Meier-Hummel worked personally with legislators to draft the bill.
Kansas’ government suffers from a staggering lack of transparency. And the problem isn’t limited to the State’s Department for Children and Families. It’s one of the only states where lawmakers can propose new laws anonymously; over the last decade, more than 90% of the bills that ultimately became law were ratified in this way, depriving citizens of the ability to know which legislators are suggesting controversial new policies.