Politics & Government

As questions mount, Kansas DCF leader leaving agency

2016: DCF secretary says she won't resign

DCF Secretary Phyllis Gilmore responds to an audit, which found that her agency had failed to ensure the safety of children in the foster care system. (July 27, 2016) (Bryan Lowry/Wichita Eagle)
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DCF Secretary Phyllis Gilmore responds to an audit, which found that her agency had failed to ensure the safety of children in the foster care system. (July 27, 2016) (Bryan Lowry/Wichita Eagle)

The leader of the Kansas agency that oversees the state’s welfare programs is leaving amid intense scrutiny of the foster care system and the expected departure of Gov. Sam Brownback.

The Kansas Department for the Children and Families announced Friday that secretary Phyllis Gilmore, 72, will leave the agency on Dec. 1. DCF said Gilmore was retiring.

"Together, with the Brownback Administration we have built a legacy that promotes independence, encourages personal responsibility and protects the children of Kansas that will endure for years to come," Gilmore said.

In recent weeks, DCF had been criticized by lawmakers after revelations that more than 70 foster children in Kansas were missing, and that some children have been sleeping in the offices of the state’s foster care contractors.

During her tenure, which stretched over much of the Brownback administration, Gilmore oversaw changes in wlefare eligibility that require able-bodied adults to work a minimum of 20 hours a week or go through job training in order to get welfare payments.

Legislation in 2016 also reduced the number of months a family can be in the welfare program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, from 36 months to 24 months, unless the family gets a hardship exemption. The lifetime limit on the program was lowered from four years to three years.

Gilmore’s departure paves the way for Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer to name a new secretary if he becomes governor. Brownback is expected to resign to take a position in President Donald Trump’s administration after the U.S. Senate confirms him as ambassador at large for international religious freedom. That could happen within weeks.

DCF has come under scrutiny in the past year for not releasing information about child deaths and other critical cases.

Families have said that the agency has often kept them in the dark and not done enough to protect children. Gilmore granted a brief interview in January and defended her agency.

"We are constantly thinking about how can we improve protocols and policies," Gilmore said. "We’re constantly striving to make sure children in Kansas are safe."

The Legislature this year created a child welfare task force to scrutinize the state’s foster care system. Rep. Steve Alford, R-Ulysses, chairs the task force and said he would like the next secretary to have an open mind.

But he also called for someone "not afraid if there needs to be changes in policy, or changes in personnel, not afraid to approach them and make some solutions."

Gilmore faced questions in 2015 and 2016 over whether the agency discriminated against same-sex individuals seeking to foster children and adopt children. Tom Witt, director of Equality Kansas, said there is no place for discrimination.

He said he "looks forward to having a director of DCF that will treat all families fairly."

House Minority Leader Jim Ward, D-Wichita, said it was well past time for Gilmore to go. "You saw significant deterioration of that agency" during Gilmore's tenure, he said.

Brownback said decreases in child poverty and increases in child support collections could be "directly attributed to the countless hours Phyllis devoted with single-minded focus on helping build strong families."

The number of Kansas children in poverty sits at 99,000, or 14 percent, according to 2016 data released by Kids Count, a nationally recognized data source about children in the U.S. That’s down from 134,000, or 19 percent, in 2011 when Brownback took office.

The percentage of Kansas children in poverty is now in line with the rate before the Great Recession.

Sen. Barbara Bollier, R-Mission Hills, said “there have been massive problems" while Gilmore has been running the agency.

"This gives great opportunity to improve things," she said. "And let's hope they select someone that is ready to oversee this whole system effectively."

Contributing: Laura Bauer of The Kansas City Star

Jonathan Shorman: 785-296-3006, @jonshorman

Hunter Woodall: 785-354-1388, @HunterMw