New Kansas Governor Talks Family and Foster Care with The Chronicle of Social Change

Gov. Laura Kelly gives her inauguration speech this month. Photo by Nick Krug

New Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly (D), who was inaugurated on January 14, wasted no time delving into the state’s troubled child welfare system. In short order, the former state senator has proposed added funding for the Department of Children and Families (DCF), hired a new leader for the agency and has high hopes for addressing the concerns brought forth in a class action lawsuit filed against the state late last year.

Yesterday, Kelly spoke with The Chronicle of Social Change about her plan to reform the state’s child welfare system.

What do you see as the most pressing issues facing DCF as you step into office?

I think we have dealt with the most pressing issue, which was to get a competent, compassionate, knowledgeable leader running that shop. And we have done that by getting Laura Howard to agree to come back to serve her state. We have one of the best and brightest in the country when it comes to child welfare issues running DCF right now.

So I think we’ve done the most important thing we could do, which was to ensure good leadership.

The second thing is we’ve already built into the budget an increase in funding, which will allow Secretary Howard to fill some vital social work positions so that we can reinvest in family preservation, but also in re-integration because over the past eight years both of those areas of our child welfare system have been decimated, which is why kids were flowing into the foster care system at an historic high rate. And also why they were getting stuck there. We didn’t have anybody working with their families to keep them out and we didn’t have anybody on the other end to get them re-integrated either with their biological family or an adoptive family.

We’re started down the path to allow [Howard] to hire qualified professionals to begin that work. We also invested more money as a match for the federal Family First program that will also do a lot to bolster our families’ abilities to keep their kids under their own roof.

Gov. Laura Kelly during her inauguration as governor of Kansas. Photo courtesy of Laura Kelly

Is Laura Howard’s position as DCF Secretary to be made permanent?

Yes, it is. She was named interim as most of the secretaries were just because you really can’t make them permanent until all of their paperwork is done. But she will go through the confirmation process and she will be permanent.

There has been a public debate over recent research suggesting that the state’s limitations on TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) assistance have caused increases in child maltreatment and foster care usage. Do you believe there is a connection there?

I absolutely believe there’s a connection. I believed there was a connection before the research was even completed. It doesn’t take much to watch the increase in the number of kids in our foster care system directly correlated with the restrictions on eligibility for TANF and other assistance programs that were actually taken from regulation and put into statute, so that my administration would not be able to reverse those. I’d have to get legislative approval to do it.

The legislature passed a law last year that prevents you from taking any action against a faith-based child welfare provider that wishes to discriminate in selecting families or youth to work with. How do you feel about this law?

I voted against that law. I spoke out against that law. My first executive order was to put back in place the anti-discrimination clauses for LGBTQ in the administration. I will look for ways, if there are any ways, administratively I can ensure we aren’t using state dollars to subsidize entities that discriminate. If I can’t do that, I’ll work with the legislature to get that reversed.

The Family First Act offers states more federal dollars to work with families without the use of foster care, but limits federal funds for group homes and institutional placements. Do you intend to implement the law by the October deadline, or seek a delay as allowed by the law?

I haven’t dealt with that yet. I’m assuming that’s something that my secretary will deal with and bring her recommendations to me. I would honestly hope that we could do it ASAP and not have to seek a delay.

You’ve made some funding available for the implementation of Family First, correct?

I have. Of course, that’s in my budget and has to be approved by the legislature.

Do you think Kansas DCF relies too much on private contractors to carry out services? Should the state reclaim more direct control over the system?

I do believe the state needs to be doing its part in operating our child welfare system. I don’t think it’s fair right now to judge our private contractors until the state is doing their job. And I’ve said that for a while now. We will evaluate the privatization of our foster care program once the state is pulling its own weight. There’s no way to do it right now – there’s too many variables.

Earlier this month you stopped the granting of contracts to private agencies. How are you going to proceed with those contracts now?

Obviously, we need to review them carefully. I was serving on the child welfare taskforce when the previous secretary brought those to our attention. I opposed them then and I continue to oppose them. I’ll be looking for a way not to have to proceed with them.

There are so many problems within that system that we don’t need to create more chaos by making such a radical change in the way we do business. We really have to stabilize the services we’re offering now and ensure we are doing all we can. If down the road a few years from now we feel like it’s a good idea to revamp it or modify it, so be it. But right now, we just need to stabilize and not put in a whole bunch more variables we just can’t control for.

Do you anticipate fighting the lawsuit filed against DCF by Children’s Rights, or coming to some agreement there?

I would like to come to some agreement. I fully understand why they filed that suit. I don’t disagree with their premise. I just think that there’s a new administration here. We will obviously approach our child welfare system, our foster care system in a very different way than the previous administration. I’m hoping we’ll be able to come to some agreement with the group that filed the suit.

According to federal data, the number of adoptions from foster care in Kansas dropped 23 percent from 2016 to 2017. What are your ideas for generating more interest in adoptions?

I think by doing a lot to fix our foster care system we will increase the number of families who are able and willing to adopt. Oftentimes adoptions spring from foster care placements but we have been such a bad partner with our foster care parents that a lot of them, I think have just given up. I think as we make improvements in the foster care system, we will see an almost organic increase in the number of people willing to adopt. We just have to be a trustworthy partner and we have not been.

I’ll work with a number of organizations around the state …to recruit new quality foster care parents and help us look for adoptive parents.

Anything else you feel really strongly about going into your time as governor?

Thinking specifically about our Department of Children and Families and our foster care, the other issue we’ve faced over the past eight years has been transparency. We will focus on that significantly. I think it’s important for us to be honest about what’s going on, to be open about what’s going on. There’s no way to fix a problem if we don’t dig deep to figure out what caused it.

Gov. Laura Kelly’s already making moves to revamp the state’s child welfare system. Photo courtesy of the Laura Kelly for Governor campaign
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Kim Phagan-Hansel
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