TOPEKA -- The Senate Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday voted unanimously to confirm Laura Howard as the permanent Secretary of the Kansas Department of Aging and Disability Services as well as the Kansas Department of Children and Families, the embattled agency responsible for child welfare.

“My mission really is protecting children and vulnerable adults and promoting self-sufficiency,” Howard said. “Whether that’s for people with disabilities, whether that’s for adults who need employment, whether that’s for families who need child support, it’s really about protecting vulnerable Kansans and allowing folks to live the most self-sufficient lives possible.”

Howard has been the acting secretary for both agencies since Jan. 14, shortly after Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly took office. Prior to Kelly’s election, DCF had been under fire since former secretary Phyllis Gilmore, a Sam Brownback appointee, retired in December 2017 amid intense scrutiny that the agency wasn’t meeting required standards and was responsible for high numbers of missing foster children.

During Tuesday’s confirmation hearing, Howard emphasized the importance of having a “culture of continuous improvement” to fix the problems beleaguering the two agencies.   

“If we’re going to improve, and we have a lot of work to do, really in both these agencies, we have to acknowledge where we are and hold a mirror up to ourselves,” she said. “We have to be honest about the progress we’re making ... We have to ask ourselves how we can do better.”

Howard, who has spent the last four years as director of the University of Kansas’ Public Management Center, has spent most of her career working in human services and public administration at the state and federal level. This experience, she said, gives her a unique insight into how best to address the direction of the agencies.

If confirmed, Howard said her key priorities would focus on stabilizing and strengthening the welfare system in Kansas, which has “urgent and imminent needs.”

“Much of my focus coming into this position has really been looking at two facets when we talk about safety. Looking at front-end of system, when we first get calls of potential abuse or neglect, we want to have significant emphasis on having positions filled at reporting centers. It’s not enough to have the right number of staff, but addressing the tools those staff have,” Howard said. “There’s a constellation of things that are really about making sure we have the most proven, evidence-based practices in our system.”

After years of tumult at the head of the two agencies, senators appeared pleased to have a nominee with Howard’s years of quiet service in the human welfare field.

“Your profile is non-controversial,” Sen. Kevin Braun, R-Kansas City, said to laughter in the hearing room. “It’s very reinforcing to me because I’m not getting info from or against that’s out of control. So, I appreciate the way you’ve lived your life up to this point.”

Howard’s nomination now moves to the full Senate for confirmation, the date of which has not been set.

Conner Mitchell is a University of Kansas senior from Newton, Kansas, majoring in journalism and political science.

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