Kansas de­fends child wel­fare open­ness

The Kansas City Star - - Front Page - BY LAURA BAUER AND JUDY L. THOMAS [email protected]­star.com [email protected]­star.com

Amid con­cerns about the Kansas Depart­ment for Chil­dren and Fam­i­lies con­duct­ing busi­ness with­out enough over­sight, Sec­re­tary Gina Meier-Hum­mel said Thurs­day: “I don’t know how we could be any more trans­par­ent.”

At is­sue is how DCF has changed the way it chooses providers — award­ing grants in­stead of tra­di­tional con­tracts.

By not go­ing through the con­tract process, which is over­seen by the Depart­ment of Ad­min­is­tra­tion, DCF now has more con­trol on who will get the money for foster care and fam­ily preser­va­tion ser­vices.

That raised eye­brows last month, when The Star re­vealed that an em­bat­tled Florida agency re­ceived a hefty child wel­fare grant from Kansas for fam­ily preser­va­tion ser­vices for three of Kansas’ four re­gions.

“There was never a ra­tio­nale given as to why they were go­ing with grants,” said Lori Ross, a long­time child ad­vo­cate in Kansas and Mis­souri. “Only now is the cloud lift­ing. DCF is able to pick and choose who they do busi­ness with. They can avoid go­ing through bids, the blind process.”

But on Thurs­day, flanked by three providers who soon will re­ceive the four-year grants for foster care and fam­ily preser­va­tion, Meier-Hum­mel said the award­ing of the grants, and the pe­riod lead­ing up to that, has been the “most trans­par­ent

process we have ever had.”

When asked later about the lack of open­ness some per­ceived, she said: “I take great of­fense to that.”

For decades, the state of Kansas has awarded child wel­fare con­tracts, so­lic­it­ing bids through a process over­seen by the Depart­ment of Ad­min­is­tra­tion. It op­er­ated un­der a strict set of guide­lines that pro­moted com­pe­ti­tion and en­sured ac­count­abil­ity.

DCF an­nounced in late May that the agency was chang­ing the way it se­cured ser­vices for ev­ery­thing from foster care to adop­tion and fam­ily preser­va­tion. The agency, in some cases, would be opt­ing for grants where the Depart­ment of Ad­min­is­tra­tion isn’t in­volved and the DCF leader has fi­nal say on who re­ceives the money.

DCF ac­knowl­edged that the switch was “sub­stan­tial” but in­sisted it would pro­vide more over­sight and ac­count­abil­ity.

On Thurs­day, MeierHum­mel said un­der the grants, there would be reg­u­lar con­tact with con­trac­tors to make sure they are pro­vid­ing the ex­pected ser­vices.

Rep. Jar­rod Ous­ley, D-Mer­riam, said he and oth­ers have won­dered why the switch to grants was needed. He said DCF first said the move was to im­prove ac­count­abil­ity and over­sight. Then the agency said it was go­ing with grants to bring the state into fed­eral com­pli­ance.

“It’s hard to get a straight an­swer and that’s al­ways a con­cern es­pe­cially when kids’ lives are on the line,” said Ous­ley, who brought up this is­sue at a leg­isla­tive task force meet­ing ear­lier this week.

Con­cern only in­ten­si­fied after Florida-based Eck­erd Con­nects re­ceived the fam­ily preser­va­tion grant.

The Star re­ported last month that Eck­erd had been un­der fire for months after it was dis­cov­ered that foster chil­dren were sleep­ing in of­fices, a prob­lem that has plagued the Kansas sys­tem for more than a year.

Ac­cord­ing to me­dia re­ports in Tampa, the state warned Eck­erd Con­nects in June that if it didn’t come up with a cor­rec­tive plan and ad­here to it, the agency could lose its $77 mil­lion an­nual con­tract.

Meier-Hum­mel said Thurs­day that she and her ad­min­is­tra­tion were aware of the Florida head­lines when Eck­erd was cho­sen. The grant, she said, is not for foster care ser­vices.

“It’s a dif­fer­ent ser­vice com­pletely,” Meier-Hum­mel said. “I don’t see it as an is­sue at all . ... I think folks were un­in­formed about their his­tory of serv­ing Kansas.”

For the past sev­eral years, Eck­erd has pro­vided some child wel­fare ser­vices in Kansas through a part­ner­ship with the state Depart­ment of Corrections.

Kansas’ bud­get for fam­ily preser­va­tion ser­vices is about $10 mil­lion, but DCF has not yet pro­vided to The Star how much of that would go to Eck­erd.

Ellen Stan­dlee, Kansas Pro­grams Op­er­a­tions Director for Eck­erd, said she’s lived in the state her whole life and has worked in child wel­fare for 27 years. She and her hus­band have also been foster par­ents in Kansas for nine years and she’s seen the sys­tem from many sides.

“I want to as­sure you and tell you that in Kansas we’re go­ing to pro­vide qual­ity fam­ily preser­va­tion ser­vices,” Stan­dlee said dur­ing Thurs­day’s news con­fer­ence. “And I can tell you I un­der­stand why it is so im­por­tant to do so.”

In pick­ing the grant re­cip­i­ents for foster care and fam­ily preser­va­tion ser­vices, DCF has said that two in­ter­nal teams “an­a­lyzed and blind­scored each bid sub­mis­sion off-site for three days at the end of Au­gust.”

The agency said it en­tered into ne­go­ti­a­tions with those who sub­mit­ted pro­pos­als in Septem­ber.

Tran­si­tions from the cur­rent ser­vices will start in Jan­uary, with the new providers sched­uled to be­gin serv­ing Kansas chil­dren and fam­i­lies on July 1, ac­cord­ing to DCF.

John Mil­burn, spokesman for the Depart­ment of Ad­min­is­tra­tion, said is­su­ing grants “is more the ex­cep­tion than the rule.

“It’s not a very com­mon prac­tice,” he said. “Most ev­ery­thing we do is a bid process con­tract.”

The rea­son, he said, is that con­tracts tend to bring a high level of ac­count­abil­ity to the process.

“Typ­i­cally, when you go through the bid process and you run it through a re­quest for pro­pos­als, you’re be­ing more trans­par­ent, you’re be­ing more open about it,” Mil­burn said. “And hope­fully, in most cases you’re go­ing to get mul­ti­ple bids to pro­vide those goods and ser­vices.”

Rochelle Chro­nis­ter, a for­mer leg­is­la­tor who from 1995 through Oc­to­ber 1999 served as sec­re­tary of the state Depart­ment of So­cial and Re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion Ser­vices — the for­mer name for DCF — said the switch to grants raises con­cerns.

“The con­tracts are more trans­par­ent,” said Chro­nis­ter, a Neode­sha Repub­li­can. “You put them out there and hope­fully have peo­ple in Kansas bid on them.”

Chro­nis­ter also said she would be “very, very con­cerned about us­ing com­pa­nies out of Florida.

“All of our con­trac­tors were ba­si­cally Kansas com­pa­nies,” she said. “You have a bet­ter chance of know­ing what’s go­ing on with them. Some­body’s al­most al­ways bound to tell you if there’s some­thing go­ing wrong if it’s right in your home state.”

When she was SRS sec­re­tary, Chro­nis­ter said, the agency worked jointly with Depart­ment of Ad­min­is­tra­tion on the con­tract process.

“They made sure the con­tracts were all le­gal and were done prop­erly, and our re­spon­si­bil­ity was to see which sounded like it was the best and did what we wanted to get done,” she said.

Meier-Hum­mel said the state was al­ready set up to move to­ward grants when she took over the agency in De­cem­ber 2017. She said she has made sure that the pub­lic was con­sulted and that every­one knew months in ad­vance what would be hap­pen­ing. The grant process in­cluded a so­lic­i­ta­tion for bids and in­ter­nal teams made up of a cross sec­tion of em­ploy­ees reviewed them, the sec­re­tary said.

Even when con­tracts are awarded, “the agency has al­ways been the one to choose,” Meier-Hum­mel said. “So ul­ti­mately it was al­ways the sec­re­tary’s de­ci­sion who gets these grants and con­tracts ... it’s just that the pa­per­work went through the Depart­ment of Ad­min­is­tra­tion and it’s not now.”

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