LAWRENCE, Kan. - Earlier this week, over 600 Lawrence residents convened in a local church to voice their concerns about the pending closure of the local Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services (SRS) office.
A sense of anger and anxiety filled the room as people wondered what would happen to their families, students, clients, or neighbors. All of the frustration and rage that resonated in the overflowing sanctuary seemed to stem from a community's deep compassion for its citizens.
Those in attendance claimed that among individuals directly affected by the closure of the SRS offices are employees who cannot afford to relocate, children, the disabled, law enforcement, battered women, the impoverished, and the elderly.
One woman in Lawrence said that she read comments from Brownback-appointed SRS Secretary, Robert Siedlecki. He had compared the difficult decision to close 9 SRS offices to deciding which child a family should sacrifice.
That woman, Kathleen McGee, faulted the Brownback-administration's analogy ...
"This is America. And this is Kansas. We don't sacrifice our children here. We help them," she said.
Unfortunately, that is exactly what is happening - and it's not just occurring in Lawrence. Mr. Siedlecki and Governor Brownback are choosing to sacrifice the well being of children in Lawrence, Coffeyville, Fort Scott, Garnett, Lyndon, Marysville, Pratt, Wellington, and McPherson.
Children won't be the only ones hurt from the closures, either.
Law enforcement officers will feel the burden as offenders lose convenient access to rehabilitation programs. Mentally ill people could lose contact with their case workers.The people who depend on SRS's services will need to access the Internet to fill out complicated forms for assistance, or will be required to travel to neighboring counties to apply for services like Medicaid - which does not have an accessible online application.
The obstacles that individuals may face are potentially endless. Some offices have limited times that workers can see clients, several people have stated they often can't reach their worker by phone, and clients may not have transportation to a remaining office. The relationships developed between the workers in these local offices and their communities will be severed because of larger caseloads and a greater physical distance.
There is obviously a steep human cost to this political maneuver. It is a cost that can't be measured in money, yet is still justified with dollars. It wouldn't be inaccurate if Governor Brownback and SRS Secretary Siedlecki labeled this as their million dollar decision. It is true that closing the 9 offices literally shaves nearly one million dollars from the SRS budget. They tout this is an example of their ability to rein in costs wherever possible by making difficult, but necessary decisions.
The problem with that idea is that most of the proposed cuts aren't necessary.
I don't believe it is a coincidence that there are new faces in several key, high salaried SRS positions since Siedlecki's appointment to the agency. Nor do I understand the necessity behind a recent $13,000 closed door meeting to develop a faith based marriage initiative.
The publicized suggestions from that gathering, which was held at SRS offices and the Governor's mansion, included the elimination of no fault divorce, penalizing spouses for adultery, and redirecting $1 million dollars from TANF (a federal program for impoverished families) to fund the discussed program.
In addition to these questionable (at best) ideas, the legislature had a $50 million dollar surplus in the same budget that contained slashes to funding for SRS, education, the arts, and other social services. Money was available, but it was either misdirected or simply not spent where it was obviously needed.
It would be absurd to think that this decision was based solely on economics, though.
Closing these offices was partly a political maneuver - one which amounts to an attack on vital services for vulnerable Kansans. Lawrence residents are reasonably alarmed by this attack. I am also worried about the future of the Lawrence community. However, I am equally concerned for the people of Coffeyville, Fort Scott, Garnett, Lyndon, Marysville, Pratt, Wellington, and McPherson.
The time has come for the people in these towns to stand up to our Governor, and for the rest of the state to stand in solidarity with them. Email your legislators, call Governor Brownback, and march to Topeka.
Make them hear our voices. Hold them accountable for their actions.
Those who are in power cannot be allowed to relentlessly bully those who do not have the resources to defend themselves.