Gov. Laura Kelly has announced a plan to form a singular agency — the Kansas Department of Human Services — that would absorb social welfare programs currently handled by three agencies.

The new agency would have a massive statewide presence, employing 6,000 workers, and oversee foster care, mental health services, four state hospitals and the juvenile justice complex. 

The Democrat said she will submit an executive order for reorganization within the first month of the legislative session, which starts next week. Lawmakers would have 60 days to approve the proposal.

Kelly’s plan would reunite the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services with the Department for Children and Families. The new agency also would take over the juvenile services division of the Department of Corrections.

The realignment would take effect July 1.

“I’ve always thought that a one-stop shop for people who need to access to government services would make a lot more sense,” Kelly said. “It’s a much more efficient way to operate.”

Children’s advocates and foster care providers expressed optimism for improved services under the new agency, while the governor’s Republican adversaries vented frustration about not being informed of the proposal before it was announced in a news conference at the Statehouse.

The governor’s proposal would undo the 2012 splintering of the former Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services under Republican Gov. Sam Brownback, as well as attempt to address concerns raised by social workers about unintended problems caused by changes to the juvenile justice system.

DCF and KDADS secretary Laura Howard would lead the new agency. Howard said the reformation is not about re-establishing the former agency.

“The combination of these services in a new agency really gives us an opportunity to think differently about service delivery,” Howard said. “We want Kansans to have seamless access to services and programs to allow them to thrive. So when I envision the Department of Human Services, I really do think first about innovation, about modernization, and about close relationships with community partners.”

Howard said employees within the affected agencies would still have a job, but their responsibilities may change.

Reactions from GOP, foster care providers

In a joint statement, Kansas House Speaker Ron Ryckman, House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins and House Speaker Pro-Tem Blaine Finch blasted the governor for not discussing her plans with GOP leaders.

“Given the rhetoric from her administration about working together and finding compromises, it’s unfortunate that Governor Kelly has kept the Legislature in the dark on such a major reorganization,” they said. “Kansans can rest assured: Republican leadership is committed to thoroughly vetting this plan to ensure it is in the best interest of Kansas families and children.”

Senate President Susan Wagle said she was prepared to “find real solutions” during the upcoming session.

“It seems Governor Kelly has, once again, chosen to exclude the legislative branch of government from her decisions,” Wagle said. “Putting a new name on a problem does nothing to actually solve the problem.”

Christie Appelhanz, executive director of the Children’s Alliance of Kansas, said she was hopeful the combination of juvenile services under a single agency would help kids get the services they need, “no matter what door they enter.”

“With the current structure,” Appelhanz said, “we’ve seen again and again how the lack of coordination between agencies hurts children and families. As long as the administration keeps the promise to not make this about saving money, we have a real opportunity to enhance and integrate service delivery and ultimately improve outcomes.”

The Department for Children and Families has been a lightning rod for controversy in recent years following revelations of child deaths, children sleeping in offices and escalating numbers of runaways. Thousands of children were added to the social welfare system, leading to severe instability.

Those challenges were exacerbated by 2017 juvenile justice reform that diverted children from incarceration and into foster care. Social workers have raised objections about a rise in traumatic events among kids in state custody and difficulties connecting troubled youths to mental health professionals.

KVC Kansas and Saint Francis Ministries, nonprofit foster care providers for Kansas, applauded the proposal to realign services under a single agency.

“We especially appreciate that the new agency will be able to focus on the needs of crossover youths, and those youths with complex mental health, child welfare and juvenile justice needs,” said Rachel Marsh, vice president of advocacy for Saint Francis Ministries.

Linda Bass, president of KVC Kansas, said the change would improve collaboration and reduce barriers to accessing services.

“We serve 40,000 children and families each year, and many of them interact with two or more of the child welfare, mental health and juvenile justice agencies,” Bass said. “Having these services under one human services umbrella helps us provide a more seamless, effective experience to children and families.”

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