TOPEKA, Kan. — Kansas' governor plans to merge a state agency that has been under fire in recent years over abused children's deaths with another social services department in the hopes that the state will focus more on preventing problems within potentially troubled families.
Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly's announcement Wednesday was short on specifics about how persistent problems would be addressed by combining the department handling the foster care system for abused and neglected children with the agency that provides services to the elderly and disabled. But Kelly and her top social services administrator said the merger would create a “modern” department better able to protect the vulnerable.
The Republican-controlled Legislature has the power to block Kelly's plan. Top GOP leaders reacted warily, criticizing Kelly for not consulting them before her announcement.
Kelly also plans to move juvenile justice programs and the state's juvenile correctional center under her new Department of Human Services, instead of having them run within the state prison system. The new, larger department would have an annual budget of about $3 billion — 16% of the state's total spending — and more than 5,000 employees.
“Creating this new agency provides us the opportunity to strengthen families and support individuals by focusing on prevention, delivering enhanced services and forging stronger connections with our community partners,” Kelly said during a news conference.
Kelly's plan would merge the Department for Children and Families, which oversees foster care and benefits and other programs for poor families, with the Department for Aging and Disability Services. The second agency runs two state hospitals for the mentally ill and two for the developmentally disabled and oversees programs for both groups.
Both Kelly and Laura Howard, the top administrator at both agencies since Kelly took office a year ago, stressed that the merger is not designed to cut spending or staff.
“As I think about the value of the new organization, one of the tremendous values is putting a greater emphasis on prevention across all of the systems,” Howard said.
Kelly said she will submit an executive reorganization order to the Legislature after it convenes its annual session Monday. Under the state constitution, the order would take effect July 1 unless either the House or Senate rejects it within 60 days.
It's not yet clear how much opposition Kelly might face. Top House Republicans complained that lawmakers were “in the dark” about details and promised a thorough vetting.
Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican and frequent Kelly critic, said in a statement: “Putting a new name on a problem does nothing to actually solve the problem.”
Kelly, a veteran state senator before being elected governor in 2018, has long considered the child welfare agency troubled. It has been criticized for not doing enough for children in abusive homes in several high-profile deaths over the past five years.
Child welfare officials have acknowledged that they received repeated reports about a 2-year-old Wichita boy before he was found dead in a motel of a methadone overdose last May. A 3-year-old Wichita boy's body was found encased in concrete in 2017 after relatives repeatedly reported abuse. In the Kansas City area, a 7-year-old boy was tortured, starved, killed and fed to pigs in 2015 despite extensive involvement with welfare officials.
The disability services department also has had staffing problems at its two hospitals for the mentally ill in recent years. The hospital in Osawatomie, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) southwest of Kansas City, lost its federal certification in 2015 for two years, costing the state $1 million a month, and was warned in December that it could lose it again.
Kelly said state employees can work more efficiently and use technology “seamlessly" as part of the same agency.
“I've thought that a one-stop shop for people needing to access government services makes a whole lot more sense," Kelly said. "It's a much more efficient way to operate and a much more effective way to operate.”
AP reporter Heather Hollingsworth also contributed from Kansas City, Missouri.