Story by Nomin Ujiyediin
TOPEKA, Kansas — The same kids who end up in trouble with the law often come from families in disarray.
Those families, in turn, regularly turn to the state for food assistance, foster care or mental health care.
So last week, Democratic Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly announced plans to merge many of the state’s social service offices — effectively reversing a breakup of the Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services that came in 2012 when Republican Sam Brownback was governor.
Kelly wants to combine the two state agencies handling social welfare with the office that handles juvenile justice services. The new agency would be called the Department of Human Services.
Experts say they’re optimistic, but the changes will create their difficulties, including the merging of social work and criminal justice cultures.
Human Services, under the Kelly plan, would knit together these operations:
- The Department for Children and Families, which oversees foster care, adoption, family preservation services, food stamps and other welfare programs;
- The Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services, which oversees mental health and programs for the elderly and disabled;
- And juvenile justice services for children who are charged with crimes, run by the Kansas Department of Corrections.
In a news conference, Kelly and Laura Howard, her secretary of KDADS and DCF, said the new agency would streamline services for families and children, especially “crossover youth” — children who are involved in both the foster care and criminal justice systems.
Republican leaders in the state Legislature criticized the governor for not consulting them.
Many details of the merger remain unsettled. They’ll be unveiled when the governor releases her executive reorganization order in a few weeks.
“One of the biggest benefits is providing more seamless access for individuals and families to government human services,” Howard said. “Sometimes, it can be really complex to navigate all of those different systems.”
For example, she said both DCF and KDADS have employment assistance services. And a family may use benefits like cash and food assistance while its elderly members use KDADS services.
Those same families may also land in the child welfare system, Howard said. Some children may be involved in both the juvenile justice system, run by the corrections department, and the foster care system, run by DCF. Those children may also need mental health services run by KDADS.
“I see some real benefits to managing that within the context of a single agency,” Howard said.
The current separation of those systems can result in children falling through the cracks, said Rachel Marsh, vice president of advocacy at St. Francis Ministries, one of the state’s largest private foster care contractors. One part of the system may not recognize that a child has needs in other areas.
“The corrections department might look at a child’s behaviors and whether they’re at risk for further juvenile justice involvement,” Marsh said. “The mental health system might look at whether a child is struggling with a particular mental health diagnosis.”
Potential costs and benefits
It’s too soon to say whether and how the agencies will save or spend money by merging, Howard said. DCF and KDADS already share an information technology system and their employees all work for the state, so those systems won’t need to be consolidated.
But revamping government agencies typically comes with unforeseen costs even if it saves money in the long run, said Suzanne Leland, a professor of public policy at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. For instance, she said, it could cost money to rebrand and reorganize offices.
“It’s just a matter of how large those costs are,” she said. “A lot of that has to do with how compatible those two different government organizations are.”
One possible benefit of a merger is changing or improving an agency’s reputation, Leland said.
“Perhaps this one agency has a better reputation than the other and it is more accountable,” she said, “then the act of doing it will restore some credibility.”
In recent years, DCF has been subject to controversies surrounding the rising number of children in foster care and the lack of foster parents to take them in and facilities to treat mental health and behavioral issues.
A merger might improve communication between agencies, said Chris Garnica, a social worker who worked at DCF and its earlier incarnation, the Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services.
Garnica sometimes saw DCF and KDADS struggle to coordinate with each other because each agency’s policies changed so often.
“If we can get the same people at the same table because they’re in the same department,” he said, “we're going to be able to problem solve a lot easier.”
Bringing together people who work in multiple fields can be a challenge because those disciplines can have different methods or perspectives, said Marilu Goodyear, a professor at the University of Kansas School of Public Affairs and Administration.
“Social work professions would have a different view of the client in the world than a criminal justice profession,” Goodyear said. “One of the challenges will be to try to take the differing perspectives and bring them together in a unit that can function effectively.”
Kansas Rep. Russ Jennings said that juvenile justice might get lost in the shuffle at a larger agency.
Jennings, chair of the House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee, said a large, diversified agency wouldn’t have enough expertise in juvenile justice.
“It is a specialty,” he said. “In my experience, the standalone agencies do better than being blended in with those large bureaucracies.”
He said that could prove especially tricky when it comes to the agency’s takeover of the Kansas Juvenile Correctional Complex in Topeka. Operating a juvenile prison, Jennings said, is different from operating a group home for troubled kids.
Ultimately, lawmakers have 60 days if they want to halt the governor’s executive reorganization order. Jennings said he and other legislators plan to ask questions and watch the transition carefully.
“Effectiveness is really important,” he said. “A large, bureaucratic agency is unruly and often not responsive. So if this goes forward, there will be lots of oversight.”
Nomin Ujiyediin reports on criminal justice and social welfare for KCUR and the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @NominUJ.
The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.