Kansas DCF Secretary Gilmore under fire from some Republicans

In this July 27, 2016, file photo, Phyllis Gilmore, secretary of the Department for Children and Families, answers questions at a committee meeting in Topeka, Kan. (Emily DeShazer/The Topeka Capital-Journal via AP, File)

Some Republicans in Kansas are now calling for Phyllis Gilmore to be removed as Secretary of the Department for Children and Families, a fact that could have implications in next year’s race for governor.

Gilmore has long been a target of criticism from Democrats who allege, among other things, that she has mismanaged the state’s privatized foster care system, where a number of children have died while in state custody. They also have alleged she openly discriminates against same-sex couples in the placement of children in foster care.

Republicans, however, have largely stood by her, even though they did agree this year to form a special task force to review the state’s entire child welfare system, although the task force’s report won’t be released until after a new administration is sworn into office in 2019.

The latest barrage, however, was prompted earlier this week during a meeting of that task force when it was revealed that more than 70 children in foster care are currently missing. People who were in the meeting when that was revealed said Gilmore appeared both unaware and unconcerned about the situation.

Former Rep. Mark Hutton of Wichita, who is now running for the GOP nomination for governor, issued a statement early Friday, “calling for leadership change at the Brownback-Colyer administration’s Department of Children and Families.”

“Department of Children and Families Secretary Phyllis Gilmore has been in her position in the Brownback-Colyer administration for over five years, a tenure increasingly defined by a total lack of accountability and a near endless stream of failures affecting foster children, at-risk youth, and children facing abuse in their home environments,” Hutton said.

As Hutton’s comment was circulating on social media Friday, a sitting GOP lawmaker went even further, suggesting that the entire leadership team at DCF needs to go, not just Gilmore.

“From what DCF employees have told me, nothing gets better until everyone at the administrative level is gone. It’s never just the Secretary,” Rep. Stephanie Clayton, R-Overland Park, tweeted at 10:47 a.m. Friday.

Asked if that meant she believed more people at DCF need to be removed than just Gilmore, she replied, “yes.”

“And, bear in mind, we have excellent people at the ground-level in DCF. Just at the admin level where there are problems,” she said in a follow-up tweet.

The calls for Gilmore’s removal have clear implications for Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer, who is preparing to step into the governor’s office, if and when Gov. Sam Brownback is confirmed for a diplomatic post in the Trump administration. Colyer is also running for a full term of his own in 2018.

The statement from Hutton, who is not nearly as widely known as Colyer and some other GOP candidates in the race, was obviously aimed at Colyer, who will likely be running as an incumbent governor when GOP voters go to the polls in the August primary, assuming Brownback is confirmed for the State Department job. That, however, could be both a blessing and a curse, depending on how Colyer plays it.

On the one hand, Colyer is in danger of inheriting a lot of baggage from Brownback, who will leave office with perhaps the lowest approval rating of any recent governor since Joan Finney, and many observers say it will be hard for Colyer to somehow distance himself from the administration in which he has played a central role for seven years.

On the other hand, though, the situation with Gilmore could give him the opportunity to do just that.

In recent months, Colyer has been loathe to speak out on substantive issues as long as Brownback is still the governor. “Right now, we have one governor at a time,” he told reporters who tried to get him to talk last month.