The Topeka Capital-Journal, Nov. 26

A difficult process of reform at DCF

Gina Meier-Hummel better be prepared to take over an agency facing huge challenges

Gina Meier-Hummel just accepted one of the most difficult jobs in the state: secretary of the Department for Children and Families. Most Kansans are well aware of the 77 foster children who are missing – a number that has doubled over the past two years. They know all about the 100 children who have been forced to spend the night in contractors’ offices since the end of 2016. They’re well-informed about the horrifying case of Adrian Jones – a 7-year-old who was tortured, starved to death and fed to pigs in 2015.

Put another way, Kansans are expecting major changes to take place at DCF, and the agency – along with the Child Welfare System Task Force – will be under intense scrutiny until we see substantial improvements. As Rep. Jarrod Ousley, D-Overland Park, puts it, “I hope she ate her Wheaties because you’ve got your work cut out for you.”

She really does. A recent state audit found that DCF was neglecting background checks, missing mandatory in-person visits, failing to respond to reports of abuse or neglect quickly enough, and providing data about foster children that was “frequently incomplete, inaccurate, or not easily accessible.” Then there’s the former DCF deputy director, Dianne Keech, who says she was told to shred notes from meetings in which deaths or injuries were discussed. Then there’s the father who says DCF wanted him to sign a “gag order” after his ex-wife murdered their son. Then there’s the effect these revelations have had on the agency’s already-poor reputation.

And we certainly can’t forget the high turnover and low employee morale at DCF. According to surveys conducted by state auditors, 59 percent of contractor staff report that they “agree or strongly agree” that “employee turnover has negatively affected the ability of caseworkers to do their jobs.” This proportion jumps to 87 percent among guardians ad litem. More than half of contractor staff “disagree or strongly disagree” that “morale among caseworkers is high,” while only 24 percent “agree or strongly agree.” Among guardians ad litem, these numbers are 76 percent and 1 percent, respectively.

Our foster care system is only going to be under more stress in the near future. Over the past five years, the number of foster children in our state has spiked by 33 percent. There are more than 6,200 foster children in Kansas, and the Legislative Research Department estimates that this number will rise to 6,483 in fiscal year 2018 and 6,665 in FY 2019. From a juvenile justice reform bill that moves kids from the criminal justice system to the foster care system to increasing public pressure to serious and persistent personnel problems, Meier-Hummel needs to be prepared for a tough slog.

After Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer formally announced her appointment on Wednesday, Meier-Hummel said she expects to “have a report on my desk every morning of the youth who are missing” and plans to direct a staff member to work with law enforcement and contractors full time to find them. She says it’s unacceptable that kids have been sleeping in contractors’ offices. She intends to make staffing changes. She wants to implement a streamlined adoption process. She says it’s time to address kids’ “mental health and behavioral health needs.” She’s preparing to conduct a comprehensive review of child safety, child deaths, agency transparency and efficiency.

At this point, all we can say is, “Godspeed.”

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The Lawrence Journal-World, Nov. 24

Scrap insecure voter system

Given the security concerns surrounding the Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck Program, the state of Kansas should be developing a strategy for getting out of managing the database.

Unfortunately, that seems unlikely, given how enamored Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach is of the program.

The Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck Program contains voter registration information for millions of voters in more than 25 states — names, birthdates, addresses and, in some cases, the last four digits of voters’ Social Security numbers.

The Kansas secretary of state’s office manages the database, which was built in 2005 and originally only included four states: Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska and Iowa. It was designed to help states clean up voter rolls by being able to easily cross reference voters who moved across state lines and registered in their new state without informing their former state of their move.

The program expanded to more than 25 states during Kobach’s tenure in office. And since becoming vice chairman of President Donald Trump’s Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, Kobach has requested that all 50 states submit voter registration information for the database.

The problem is, the database isn’t even close to being secure, as nonprofit investigative journalism outlet ProPublica demonstrated with relative ease. In an article last month, ProPublica worked with a progressive-leaning group called Indivisible Chicago to obtain public records showing that the Crosscheck files are hosted on an ftp server in Arkansas that is not secure, and that user names and simplistic passwords were frequently shared in emails, making them even more vulnerable to hackers.

“It blows my mind — this is complete operational security incompetence,” Joe Hall told ProPublica. Hall is the chief technologist for the Center for Democracy and Technology, an organization that promotes internet freedom.

Bryan Caskey, the chief election officer in Kobach’s office said this week that Crosscheck is being thoroughly reviewed for security concerns. He wasn’t sure who would pay for the security review and any necessary upgrades.

“I legitimately do not know the answer to that yet,” Caskey said. “We’re still evaluating all options, and one of the options is cost.”

So, to review, Kansas has taken responsibility for storing and managing multi-state voter registration information on a server that is easy to hack and if that wasn’t enough, officials responsible for the system have taken to routinely sharing user names and passwords back and forth via email, creating even greater security risk. And Kobach, with the president’s blessing, has touted this database as the system every state should use as the way forward to ensure election integrity. Finally, it appears Kansas taxpayers are likely to foot the bill for the security review and fix for the Crosscheck system.

At a minimum, Kansas should turn over management of the program to another state and pull out of participation in the database. Better yet, Crosscheck should be scrapped and the data purged. Sadly, neither step is likely.

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The Kansas City Star, Nov. 24

Does Kansas need an auditor? Let the people decide if they want a watchdog

Kansans are now engaging in an important discussion about transparency and openness in their state’s government, including the possibility of electing a state auditor to keep an eye on public agencies.

The Star recommended the installation of a statewide auditor following the newspaper’s eye-opening series on secrecy in Kansas.

We’re encouraged that no elected official we know of has rejected the idea out-of-hand. In fact, two candidates for governor — Josh Svaty and Carl Brewer — embraced the proposal.

Others said details would have to be worked out before lawmakers consider the idea. We’re confident the Legislature can do that during next year’s session and put the proposal on the November ballot in Kansas.

Here are some things to keep in mind.

Cost. Several legislators said the auditor’s office might be too expensive. It needn’t be.

In fiscal year 2017, Missouri’s state auditor will receive more than $6.6 million from the state’s general fund. Missouri is about twice as big as Kansas, suggesting a reasonable general fund budget for a Kansas auditor might be about $3.5 million.

The Kansas general fund budget is $6.6 billion. The state should be able to find $3.5 million to fund an auditor. Or take funds from other state offices, including the secretary of state and the treasurer. Funds for the attorney general could be reduced, too, since the auditor will assume some of the responsibilities of that office.

And, as Svaty has pointed out, an effective auditor might save taxpayer money by reducing waste in government.

Bureaucracy. Several lawmakers said they’re worried about creating another bureaucracy in government. Don’t be fooled: They’re really worried about someone looking over their shoulders.

It’s true some transparency problems could be solved without an auditor. The Legislature could record votes, for example. Those steps should be taken whether there’s an auditor or not.

Election. Some are worried about electing the auditor statewide. There’s no perfect way to do this, but electing the auditor should ensure some loyalty to the people and not a branch of government.

Let the people vote. We’re not asking Topeka to establish a state auditor. We’re asking for a statewide vote on an auditor. There can be no clearer indication of support for openness in Kansas than letting the people decide the question.

Conversely, opponents will demonstrate support for the status quo: secrecy, obfuscation, delay.

Kansas had an auditor for more than a century. Now, a strong auditor could put a stop to excessive secrecy in state government. Voters should have their say in 2018.