TOPEKA — 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 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.”
The current separation of 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.”
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.