TOPEKA, Kan. — The top administrator at the Kansas Department for Children and Families plans to retire Dec. 1 after months of scrutiny of the agency’s oversight of services for abused and neglected children.
Republican Gov. Sam Brownback’s office announced department Secretary Phyllis Gilmore’s retirement Friday and said her nearly six-year tenure had “transformed the department into an agency of opportunity” to combat childhood poverty and help poor and disabled adults.
But Democratic legislators have been calling for Gilmore to step down since a scathing state audit of the foster care system in July 2016 concluded that Kansas was putting vulnerable children at risk by struggling to provide adequate oversight for contractors providing services. And last month, former state Rep. Mark Hutton, a Wichita Republican and candidate for governor next year, called for a “leadership change” as new questions about the foster care system arose.
“It’s past time that Phyllis be gone, but that’s not the end of the problem,” said Kansas House Minority Leader Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat who also is running for governor and was one of the first lawmakers to call for Gilmore’s resignation.
Brownback named Gilmore, now 72, secretary in February 2012. She is a licensed social worker who represented a Kansas City-area district in the Kansas House before serving 11 years as executive director of the state board that regulates social workers, psychologists, counselors and therapists.
Gilmore championed tougher rules for state assistance programs that, among other things, required able-bodied recipients to work or be looking for jobs. She and Brownback said the changes moved people from dependence on social services into jobs.
“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 a statement Friday.
The governor has pointed to a significant decrease in childhood poverty in recent years. Brownback said in a statement that during Gilmore’s tenure, more adults “found self-reliance” and more people with disabilities who live in the state found meaningful work.
“Those accomplishments can be directly attributed to the countless hours Phyllis devoted with single-minded focus on helping build strong families,” Brownback said.
But critics contend the drop in childhood poverty had more to do with national trends and the tougher policies denied more people benefits. The number of people covered by cash assistance averages fewer than 10,000 a month, less than a third of what it was five years ago.
And issues within the foster care system generated increasing criticism of Gilmore and her department.
In 2015 and 2016, she faced allegations that she attempted to block adoptions of abused or neglected children by same-sex couples. She said anti-gay bias was not involved in decisions. But she acknowledged in an interview at the time that the “preferred” situation for her was for “every child to have a mom and a dad, if possible.”
The state and one of its contractors agreed last year to pay a total of $412,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by the mother of a 4-year-old northeastern Kansas boy who was beaten to death after being placed in the home of his father despite the man’s history of domestic violence.
The department has faced questions about two other high-profile cases involving the deaths of children who were not removed from a parent’s custody. One involved a 7-year-old Kansas City boy who was tortured, starved, killed and fed to pigs in 2015, and the other, a 3-year-old Wichita boy whose body was found in September encased in concrete at the home where his mother and her boyfriend lived.
Since Gilmore became the department’s top administrator, the number of abused and neglected children in state custody has risen 39 percent. It was about 7,100 at the end of August 2017.
In September, lawmakers learned that dozens of children in the state’s care had to sleep overnight in contractors’ offices this year because foster homes weren’t immediately available. Legislators also were angered in October when finding out that more than 70 children were reported missing from the state’s foster care system. However, that amount — 1 percent of Kansas’ foster children — was in line with the national average for runaways according to federal data.
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