Government & Politics

As questions mount, Kansas DCF Secretary Phyllis Gilmore leaving the agency

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 Children and Families announced Friday that agency secretary Phyllis Gilmore will leave the agency on Dec. 1. DCF cast the decision as a retirement.

“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 a statement.

Lawmakers in recent weeks have criticized DCF 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.

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. That could happen within weeks.

During Gilmore’s tenure, which stretched across much of the Brownback administration, she oversaw changes in welfare eligibility that require able-bodied adults to work a minimum of 20 hours a week or go through job training 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.

In the past year, DCF has come under scrutiny for not releasing information about child deaths and other critical cases. The Star wrote in January that despite a 2004 law allowing release of records after a death or serious injury, the agency rarely shared information.

Families have insisted that the agency often kept them in the dark and did not do 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 told The Star. “We’re constantly striving to make sure children in Kansas are safe.”

After the 2015 death of Adrian Jones, a 7-year-old Kansas City, Kan., boy, the department wouldn’t say how involved the agency had been with the family. The Star and other media outlets requested information in late November of that year, but the records were sealed after prosecutors and police petitioned the court to keep everything closed.

In May of this year — 1 1/2 years after the initial request — the newspaper received 2,000 pages of documents from the Kansas agency. Those records showed it had extensive contact with Adrian’s family for several years, including conversations with the young boy, who years later would be tortured before he starved to death in his family’s home. His body was fed to pigs.

Gilmore initially had said that DCF last had contact with Adrian’s family in February 2012, but the records released in May showed that the agency investigated a hotline call 10 months later, in December 2012. At that time the caller said Heather and Michael Jones’ children were being spanked until “their butts bleed.” The caller also said that the mother in the home had mental health issues and pigs got inside the house.

A DCF spokeswoman later said Gilmore was referring to the last physical contact with Adrian. The December 2012 hotline call did not involve Adrian, the spokeswoman said, because he did not reside in the residence being investigated.

In recent weeks the newspaper has requested information regarding dozens of children who have died of abuse and neglect in the past decade or so. Those requests have been denied.

The Legislature this year created a child welfare task force to scrutinize the state’s foster care system. Rep. Steve Alford, a Ulysses Republican, 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, a Wichita Democrat, said “it was well past time for her to go.”

“You saw significant deterioration of that agency” during Gilmore’s tenure, Ward 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, a Mission Hills Republican, said “things have not been running smoothly,” when told Gilmore planned to retire.

Bollier 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.”

Jonathan Shorman: 785-296-3006, @jonshorman

Hunter Woodall: 785-354-1388, @HunterMw

Laura Bauer: 816-234-4944, @kclaurab