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Kansas governor to argue again for merging of key agencies

Andrew Bahl
Topeka Capital-Journal
Gov. Laura Kelly walks in with Department for Aging and Disability Services Secretary Laura Howard, left, before a Statehouse news conference. Kelly announced Monday she would seek to merge KDADS with the Department for Children and Families. (2020 file photo/The Capital-Journal)

Gov. Laura Kelly said Monday she will once again seek to merge the state’s two primary social services agencies, the Department for Children and Families and the Department for Aging and Disability Services, maintaining such a move would improve service delivery.

Kelly proposed such a move last year as well, but the Republican-controlled Legislature used its authority to block the proposal, with members arguing the new agency would be too large to effectively manage.

But the governor argued in a statement that the combined agencies, which would be dubbed the Department of Human Services under the proposal, would provide a singular entry point for Kansans on everything ranging from foster care to the licensing and credentialing of adult care homes.

“Creating the Department of Human Services ensures Kansas families and individuals have easier access to critical services and improves engagement between our service centers, clients, and local stakeholders by creating a single point of entry for those accessing a variety needs,” Kelly said.

Presently, DCF primarily handles the state’s foster care system, as well as the state’s Head Start program and other social services targeting children. KDADS, meanwhile, regulates adult care homes in Kansas and also manages behavioral health services, including operations at four state hospitals.

If the proposal is successful, the combined agency would have a budget of over $1 billion, making the merger one of the most significant reorganizations of state government seen in some time.

It is this size that made Republicans skeptical of the combined agency last session, said Rep. Susan Concannon, R-Beloit.

"It was just too big," Concannon, who chairs the House Children and Seniors Committee, said. 

One difference from Kelly’s last attempt to pursue a merger is that the current proposal wouldn't see the combined agency handling the state’s juvenile justice programs, which are currently housed in the Department of Corrections.

Including juvenile justice in the combined agency was why Concannon voted against the proposal last session.

"I can understand the reason they want to do it, to be under the same umbrella because of communication. she said. "But in the end I voted against it because of (the juvenile justice component).

DCF in particular has come under fire in recent years for its handling of the state’s foster care system.

A report last year from the federal Office of Inspector General found that DCF didn’t ensure compliance with safety standards in 24 of the state’s 31 group homes.

The OIG report came just weeks after the state agreed to an out-of-court settlement with a trio of nonprofits to end a 2018 federal suit that demanded better care of foster kids.

The deal required that DCF end the use of offices for overnight stays, limit short-term placements and expand mental health services for youths.

The Department of Human Services would be run by Laura Howard, who is currently the secretary for both DCF and KDADS.

She has stressed improvement on areas within her agencies’ purview, most notably in foster care, where the state has embraced federal funding from a 2018 law that aims to prevent children from entering the foster care system in the first place.

In a statement, she argued the merger would expand on that progress.

“This is not going to be business as usual,” Howard said. “This new combined agency provides us the opportunity to modernize systems for youth, families, and the elderly. KDHS means less bureaucracy standing between clients and the services they need.”

The Legislature remains able to block the move, which Kelly said she will submit formally on Jan. 21. Either the Kansas Senate or Kansas House would have 60 days to pass a resolution opposing the move.