There’s been a lot to be upset about in Kansas since the election of our new governor, much that affects people I love and me, but nothing has broken my heart as much as the secretary of SRS (our state social service agency) making a quick decision, without any process, involvement of stakeholders or transparency, to close agencies across the state, including in my home town, Lawrence. At the public forum tonight on the proposed closure, over 600 people showed up, often walking long distances from where we found parking in the 100-degree heat to come together and speak. We were speaking to each other, and more importantly, listening to each other, and the “we” included our city commissioners, county commissioners, and state representatives and senators, plus half a dozen local ministers, all at Plymouth Congregational Church.
Whether you’re a fan of big or small government, or whether you think SRS is run well or not-so-well isn’t the issue here. I don’t know anyone — from Evangelical Christians to atheist libertarians — who doesn’t believe that there’s at least some need for some basic social services everywhere, let alone in the fifth-largest city of Kansas. That the governor’s people chose to close the Lawrence office, which last month served over 10,000 people (about 10% of the Lawrence population) makes no sense to no one. What it means makes me cry over my computer.
As Judge Jean Shepherd so aptly pointed out, effective services is dependent on relationships. Without case managers knowing and having experience with a city’s police, not-for-profit services, schools and other resources, how can these case managers…or the court system….or schools know how to help children in dire need? “SRS is the glue that holds all the services together,” one resident said. Without that glue, children in abusive homes would have less chance of being removed to safer environs, and children in foster care would have less chance of getting out of that system.
The closure of SRS doesn’t just affect children in need but the elderly, people with all manner of physical and/or mental disabilities, low-income adults and children, people just out of jail and needing support for turning their lives around, men and women leaving abusive marriages, families in crisis, and many others, plus the 87 people who work at the local office and know this community’s needs up close and personal.
One woman, speaking in a shaky voice because of her disability and having come here in her wheelchair, said she heard the SRS secretary said that sometimes some sacrifice is needed, even when providing services to children. “In America and in Kansas, we don’t sacrifice children. We help them,” she added. As I hunted my purse for a tissue, I saw that some of our legislators were wiping their eyes. Another woman told of the essential she received when leaving an abusive husband. A man spoke about how, in the three years since he got out of jail, he was able to set his life on the right path because of the services SRS provided. And directors and board members from many agencies — Bert Nash (mental health provider), Cottonwood (provider of disability services), Visiting Nurses, Lawrence Community Shelter (serving the homeless) and many more — spoke of how threadbare their budgets were, how overwhelmed their staffs and programs already when it came to meeting the needs of our community. Many explained that what had been proposed in lieu of a Lawrence SRS office — that people in need simply go to computers and file forms on-line, or travel to offices in other cities — isn’t feasible. This is because the people who most need services are least likely to own a computer or car (let alone be able to afford gas), and we live in a largely rural state without much public transportation between towns.
I have been involved in community work of one kind or another for decades, but never before have I see so vividly the tragedy of a government turning against its own people, or more accurately, a few in the government bypassing a fair process, common sense and compassion to such an extent.
At the same time, I looked around the church we filled and overflowed tonight to see so many people — elders with walkers, young adults with developmental disabilities, legislators and commissioners, people who had been living for years with great physical or mental pain, social workers and doctors, artists and business owners, ministers and volunteers, teachers and professionals, caregivers and the ones who need such care to survive. Listening to what we had to say to each other about next steps to challenge this injustice, and even more so, listening to how articulately and lovingly people spoke about and to the community they loved made me so proud to be part of our people. It inspired me as it did hundreds of others to use our voices to turn the government back to the people.