Phyllis Gilmore, secretary of Kansas’ Department for Children and Families, announced Friday that she will retire effective Dec. 1. Friday was also the last day for her top deputy, Chief of Staff Jeff Kahrs, as he departs for a position with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
DCF oversees the state’s privatized foster care system, which has drawn particular scrutiny during Gilmore’s tenure.
The number of children in state custody has set records since she was appointed to head the agency in 2012. High caseloads have been accompanied by staffing churn at the two contractors that manage the system. Reports surfaced in September that children were sleeping in contractors’ offices when immediate placements for them could not be found.
More recently, lawmakers learned that more than 70 children were missing from the system. Gilmore’s seeming ignorance of the case of three girls missing from their foster home in Tonganoxie prompted some to call for the secretary’s removal.
“We’re talking about 7,000 children (in the foster care system) and we’re talking about one secretary,” Gilmore said after a legislative task force meeting where the matter surfaced.
Gilmore later defended her agency in an editorial, saying it’s not uncommon for children to run away from their foster homes. Only 1.1 percent of children in the Kansas foster care system are missing, which she says is on par with the national average.
State Rep. Jarrod Ousley, a Merriam Democrat who helped establish the task force looking into DCF’s handling of foster care, said Gilmore’s retirement opens the door for improvements.
“We have an opportunity here to start top-down rebuilding of our foster care system in the state of Kansas,” he said.
House Minority Leader Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat who has been a vocal critic of the secretary, said Gilmore’s retirement is overdue but won’t solve all of the agency’s problems.
“That’s just the first step,” Ward said. “What we need to do is focus on her replacement and make sure that person is committed to making the changes in that agency that are desperately needed to protect those children.”
Responding to Gilmore’s announcement, Gov. Sam Brownback was quick to offer, giving the secretary credit for a decline in the child poverty rate and the dramatic drop in the number of Kansans on welfare.
“Those accomplishments can be directly attributed to the countless hours Phyllis devoted with single-minded focus on helping build strong families. I am thankful for her devotion and wish her the very best in the next chapter of her life,” Brownback said.
Gilmore’s focus on welfare-to-work – a philosophy the governor has strongly supported – has, however, brought concerns that the state’s safety net has thinned.
A spokeswoman for the governor said a decision about Gilmore’s replacement will be made in the coming weeks.
Brownback himself may soon be gone, as he awaits U.S. Senate confirmation for his nomination to be the religious freedom ambassador in the Trump State Department.
Madeline Fox is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach her on Twitter @maddycfox. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to kcur.org.