Social services reorganization stumbles in Senate


Gov. Laura Kelly’s plan to reorganize the state’s social service agencies has been handed a second setback in the Senate.

The Senate health committee recommended against the governor’s executive reorganization order Thursday just before blocking a proposal to expand Medicaid.

The Senate committee’s vote came about a week after a House panel took similar action against the reorganization plan.

“Too much, too soon,” said Republican Sen. Gene Suellentrop, chairman of the Senate health committee.

“If they want to put together a committee to study this over the summer, great, we’ll take this up next year.”

The full House and Senate have until March 30 to block the reorganization or it takes effect.

The governor wants to create the Department of Human Services, which would bring together programs run by the Department for Children and Families and the Department for Aging and Disability Services.

The newly formed agency also would take in the juvenile services division of the Department of Corrections.

Consolidation, the governor said, would give Kansans a single point of access to social services that are now spread across three different state agencies.

The agency would be run by Laura Howard, who has already been overseeing DCF and KDADS in the Kelly administration.

Some lawmakers see the reorganization as an attempt to make government even bigger without any cost savings.

“There was nothing about it that indicated it was going to streamline anything,” said Republican Sen. Molly Baumgardner.

Baumgardner said she didn’t see how the merger would improve services for foster children and mental health.

The governor said reorganization is important for helping struggling families and children.

“I’m disappointed the majority of the Senate health committee voted against the creation of the Department of Human Services, which would streamline services, put much needed focus on prevention and improve access to integral services for at-risk children and families,” the governor said in a statement.

“We must protect our most vulnerable citizens – and not let any kids fall through the cracks,” she said.

John Wilson, president and chief executive officer of Kansas Action for Children, acknowledged worries about creating a bigger government bureaucracy.

“I know there have been concerns expressed about the size of the agency and whether it will slow improvements to a child welfare system in crisis,” Wilson said in a statement.

“But that crisis isn’t a result of an agency’s size or structure,” he said. “It’s a result of families in Kansas not being able to meet their basic needs because of current laws that severely restrict access to work and family support programs.

Christie Appelhanz, executive director of the Children’s Alliance of Kansas, said the reorganization offered the potential of making it easier for families and children to access services.

“But consolidation alone was never going to make those values a reality,” Appelhanz said in an email.

“It doesn’t have to take an act of the Legislature for agencies to communicate, be innovative in utilizing funding and do what’s in the best interest of children and families,” she said.

The reorganization plan attracted some opposition from groups hearing mixed messages about how much change the proposed restructuring would bring.

“We are conflicted by statements that ‘nothing will change,’ and other statements that ‘we will make the system better,’” said Stuart Little, representing the Kansas Community Corrections Association.

“There are ‘in the weeds’ issues that hinge on the big-picture issue of whether or not nothing is going to change, or everything is going to change,” Little told the committee in written testimony.

“There are some specific areas where the system could falter if some of the issues are overlooked, (including) funding, operations, and data management,” he said.

Little didn’t question the intention of the reorganization effort, but said that the changes would have a long-term effect on the work the organization does for families and children.

“We do not doubt the constructive motivation behind (the plan), but we do want to ensure the strong system in place is not eroded in the transition,” he said.

Little also voiced concern about whether removing juvenile services from Corrections would subordinate juvenile services to the child welfare system.

“Great local community corrections programs can help these kids and families,” he said in his testimony.

“However, in the field the perception is that this move runs the risk of making juvenile services serve child welfare.”

Others said that local agencies and stakeholders were “blindsided” by the governor’s reorganization order.

They said that six months was not enough time to develop a “well thought out” collaborative plan for reorganizing the agencies.

They also said that some opponents of the plan are afraid to express their concerns.

“Because this is an initiative from Gov. Kelly, some people/agencies who oppose the ERO are afraid to speak (the) truth for fear of losing their jobs,” said Angie Hadley, program coordinator for the Restorative Justice Authority in Pittsburg.

“While we have faith in many of her decisions,” Hadley said in written testimony, “this one we do not see as beneficial to the youth or families we have successfully served.

“The expediency of this ERO proposal has the ability to cause more harm and disruption than good.”