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July 22, 2011
TOPEKA Organizers of the annual Kansas Conference on Poverty didn’t know what to expect when they penciled into the final day's agenda a workshop on faith-based initiatives.
It turned out to be one of their most popular sessions, attracting about a third of the 180 conference attendees. Many came to learn more about planned state initiatives to strengthen marriage and families.
Rob Siedlecki, secretary of the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services, reorganized the agency in late May in part to make way for a host of new faith-based initiatives aimed at reducing divorce and improving the well-being of families and children.
But since that pre-Labor Day announcement, agency leaders have provided few details about how the initiatives would be operated or funded.
As a result, Anna Pilato, SRS deputy secretary for Strategic Development and Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, found herself responding to questions from her seat in the back row at the conference workshop.
She did not provide much detail about what the agency plans, saying that SRS leaders were still gathering input about how to structure the initiatives.
“We’ve been getting out there, hitting the bricks,” she said. “This is definitely still at the formative stage.”
Pilato said the agency was collecting information about gaps in state services and the capacity of faith-based organizations to help fill them.
“Obviously, there is plenty of need to go around,” Pilato said. “There is room for every group at the table.”
More than government can handle
Barry Feaker, executive director of the Topeka Rescue Mission, which includes a homeless shelter, was a workshop panelist.
He said churches and faith-based social service organizations were essential to meeting the needs of vulnerable Kansans.
He said Americans and Kansans have distanced themselves from the plight of the homeless, the mentally ill and others who struggle to meet life’s daily demands.
We’ve become accustomed, he said, “to sending it (their problems) away to somewhere else.”
That somewhere else is usually the government, he said. While the government is essential to creating an adequate safety net, Feaker said it can’t and shouldn’t do it alone. Churches, compassionate individuals and faith-based service organizations must step up their efforts.
“There are very few churches and individuals out there who are willing to engage for the long haul in people’s tragic lives,” Feaker said. “We must step up into the reality zone. It’s going to take individuals getting involved with individuals.”
Strong families important
Mike Duxler, a social worker and associate professor at Newman University in Wichita, said research shows that people in healthy marriages and committed relationships are happier and healthier than those who aren’t and so are their children.
“There seems to be some correlation between healthy relationships and things going better,” Duxler said.
But changing social mores and climbing divorce rates are taking their toll on marriage.
So, Duxler said, it's appropriate for government and faith-based organizations to partner and intervene with voluntary programs that help people enter healthy relationships and sustain them.
He gave Gov. Sam Brownback high marks for his plan to make a healthy marriage program a cornerstone of his administration’s effort to reduce child poverty.
“The governor is really committed to doing this well and doing this right,” Duxler said. “I applaud that kind of effort to try to do the very best program we can.”
Duxler and others involved in discussions with SRS about healthy marriage initiative are hoping to receive about $1 million in state welfare funds to help with the effort. The funding would come out of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant that the state receives from the federal government.
Kansas officials are looking at Oklahoma’s marriage initiative as a possible model. In operation since 1999, the Oklahoma program has about 50 employees and an annual operating budget of $6.1 million.
Neither Brownback nor Siedlecki have yet said how much the administration’s planned marriage initiative would cost or how it would be funded.