TOPEKA — Gov. Sam Brownback’s top administrator of social service programs in Kansas revealed plans on Friday to step down in December from the embattled Kansas Department for Children and Families.
Phyllis Gilmore, who retires effective Dec. 1, was appointed by Brownback to lead DCF in 2012 and has faced scrutiny from legislators and advocates for implementation of policy reforming assistance to the poor and for alleged shortcomings in oversight of children in foster care.
Brownback expressed appreciation for Gilmore’s contributions to state government, especially her work to bring self-reliance to people living in poverty and “empowering people with disabilities to find meaningful work.”
Gilmore’s exit is likely to coincide with transfer of power from Brownback to Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer, who is expected to order personnel changes after being sworn into office.
Brownback is in line to become international ambassador of religious freedom under President Donald Trump. Colyer is seeking the 2018 Republican nomination for governor, and there is bipartisan anticipation Colyer would order staffing adjustments to put distance between himself and Brownback-era controversy.
In a statement, Gilmore said she was honored to work toward Brownback’s “vision for a brighter future for Kansas children and families.”
House Minority Leader Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat, said problems at DCF were illuminated in stories about the murder of children connected to DCF, children in state custody sleeping in office buildings and the agency’s inability to track about 75 missing foster care children. He said the Legislature’s auditing agency produced reports confirming serious problems at DCF.
“It’s well past time for her to leave. They have a long-term record of failure,” Ward said. “The question is: Do they bring in somebody committed to making the changes that need to be made to protect the children?”
Neither a staff email regarding Gilmore’s departure nor an announcement from the governor’s office indicated who would be appointed interim DCF secretary.
Former Wichita state Rep. Mark Hutton, who is seeking the GOP nomination for governor, said his call last month for leadership change at DCF was answered.
“Responsibility for the failures at DCF ultimately resides with Governor Brownback and Lieutenant Governor Colyer, who lead our state government,” Hutton said. “I’m disappointed that neither of them ever attempted to fix the problems hurting the most vulnerable among us.”
Sarah Coats, a former DCF social worker who is a Democratic candidate for the Kansas House seat held by Topeka Rep. Ken Corbet, said Gilmore’s retirement was a victory for Kansas children. In 2016, Coats said a DCF hotline for reporting child abuse was overwhelmed due to insufficient staff. DCF said workers struggled to keep pace with calls, but didn’t view the situation as a “backlog.”
“I’m proud of the role I’ve had so far in whistleblowing the backlog of hotline reports at DCF, advocating for workers and our rights, and working on behalf of children and their families. ” Coats said.
Gilmore, 72, was credited by Brownback with reducing childhood poverty, increasing child-support collections and moving impoverished adults into the workplace. The governor praised her for lowering the number of poor adults receiving assistance from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Family program.
“These accomplishments can be directly attributed to the countless hours Phyllis devoted with single-minded focus on helping build strong families,” the governor said.
Brownback said Gilmore should be acknowledged for generating millions of dollars in savings to taxpayers by privatizing the state’s child-support services operation. He said DCF’s secretary was a key player in developing a faith-based initiative to recruit foster parents.
“Together, with the Brownback administration,” Gilmore said, “we have built a legacy that promotes independence, encourages personal responsibility and protects the children of Kansas that will endure for years to come.”