I was proud to stand alongside Gov. Kelly when she announced her intention to reorganize state government by creating the Kansas Department of Human Services. As Secretary of both the Department for Children and Families (DCF) and the Department of Aging and Disability Services (KDADS), it is clear to me the benefits of consolidation.
Adding juvenile services to the mix creates an agency uniquely designed to strengthen families and support individuals by focusing on prevention, delivering enhanced services and creating stronger connections with our community partners.
Some have been quick to criticize the reorganization, calling it a “rebranding exercise” or an act of “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.” Nothing could be further from the truth. When I returned to state government last January, I found fractured service delivery systems, hollowed-out programs and new restrictions, which had the effect (if not the intention) of making it as difficult as possible to access vital work programs and other supports like food and child care assistance.
I also saw the consequences of these actions, rising foster care caseloads and kids sleeping in offices, which some critics are now citing to make their case against the reorganization.
Let’s be clear: The child welfare system is still stressed, but we are making significant progress in turning it around. In the past year, we’ve added more than 40 social work positions, enhanced our focus on prevention through the new Family First Prevention program and our practitioners are learning new practice models that prioritize family involvement in safety and placement decisions. DCF also created a special response team dedicated to both finding and preventing runaway foster children.
In 2019, we facilitated a record number of adoptions and newborns are now safer thanks to our new Universal Infant Referral policy mandating child protection workers refer Kansas families with an infant under the age of one to community-based infant/toddler and home visitor programs.
Keeping DCF as a “stand-alone” agency is not the answer. A consolidated agency creates a single point of entry for families who need multiple services. Think about those Kansas families who struggle to make ends meet, whose children might have mental health needs or might be at risk of entering the foster care system. This reorganization means individuals and families have fewer systems to navigate to access the supports they need. This new agency provides us the opportunity to think differently about service delivery and to work more closely with communities to enhance access to services from economic supports to child welfare to mental health before there is a crisis.
KDHS is not about combining agencies for efficiency’s sake. It’s not about cost savings, although some will naturally occur. It’s about creating a new, modern human service agency. An agency that values its community partners, an agency that seeks collaboration and an agency that is accountable to the citizens of Kansas. It is about better communication, better coordination and — most importantly — better outcomes for Kansas citizens.
I agree “the children are our future.” But instead of using this as a catchy phrase to criticize, let’s take concrete steps to ensure children thrive in Kansas. This reorganization is an important step in making sure Kansas families and individuals receive the support they need to succeed. Join me in this crucial and exciting journey.
Laura Howard is the secretary of Department for Children and Families and the Department of Aging and Disability Services agencies.