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.
Despite resistance, lawmakers create foster care task force; Brownback signs four more bills as session nears end
The Kansas Senate sent two significant pieces of legislation to Gov. Sam Brownback's desk on Friday while Brownback signed four bills into law.
Among the bills the Senate passed was one establishing a child welfare task force that would spend the next two years studying the Department for Children and Families' management of the state's child welfare system, and the foster care system in particular, and to make recommendations for improvement.
The bill was prompted by a number of children who were either killed or mistreated while in the custody of the child welfare system. But DCF Secretary Phyllis Gilmore has resisted efforts to impose more oversight, and conservative lawmakers allied with Brownback pushed back against the idea.
The push to establish a new task force comes on the heels of a series of Legislative Post Audit reports that were highly critical of DCF's management of the programs.
The task force would be made up of legislators, court officers, children's advocates, law enforcement officials, social workers and others involved in the child welfare system. That group would break up into a number of working groups to study different aspects of the system, including foster care, family preservation, protective services, reintegration and DCF's general administration of child welfare.
The group would be expected to file a progress report to the Legislature in January 2018, but its final report would not come until January 2019, after the Brownback-Colyer administration has left office.
The bill passed the House Friday morning, 109-10. It passed the Senate a few hours later, 33-6.
The Senate also passed and sent to Brownback's desk a bill dealing with mandatory inspections of amusement park rides. That bill, which the House passed Thursday, delays some enforcement provisions of a new law just enacted earlier in the session making it a class B misdemeanor to operate an amusement park ride that has not been inspected and received a permit by the Kansas Department of Labor.
Meanwhile, Brownback signed four pieces of legislation into law Friday:
• Senate Bill 42, updating and revising portions of the juvenile justice code that underwent a massive overhaul last year.
• Senate Bill 201, amending the Kansas Consumer Protection Act, adding members of the military to the definition of “protected consumers.”
• House Bill 2092, making various changes to Kansas criminal procedure.
• And House Bill 2132, authorizes port authorities to conduct certain sales.
Brownback has now signed 91 bills into law this session and has vetoed three. His veto of an income tax overhaul bill was subsequently overridden this week.
Kansas Department for Children and Families Secretary Phyllis Gilmore on Thursday sought to assure local leaders that Gov. Sam Brownback's budget would not reduce services and there was no move to close the local office.
But Douglas County officials expressed skepticism and concern that budget cuts at the state level would throw costs and responsibilities onto local governments.
"There is no intention to cut services," said Gilmore in a meeting at the DCF office at 1901 Delaware St.
Asked if there would be any proposals from the Brownback administration to shut down local DCF offices, Gilmore said, "Nothing has been put on the table related to office closures."
Gilmore said the agency had complied with a Brownback administration directive to submit a budget proposal to Brownback to cut spending by 10 percent.
But she expressed confidence Brownback wouldn't recommend a 10 percent cut to the Legislature when the 2013 session starts in January. Even if he did, the 10 percent cut would be accomplished through cost-cutting moves at DCF headquarters in Topeka and not impact other programs overseen by the agency, Gilmore said. She and other members of her staff said possible savings could be realized in information technology, mail processing and telephone systems. Gilmore said there were no plans for major layoffs.
The agency — formerly known as the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services and recently reorganized — is responsible for child protection, food assistance, child support services and work rehabilitation programs.
Several local officials said they were concerned about any budget cuts, and that they were worried that Brownback would cut programs or staff without input from local officials.
"The history to date, is that we haven't been consulted," said Douglas County Administrator Craig Weinaug, noting that the Brownback administration in July 2011 proposed closing the local SRS office without discussing the issue beforehand with local officials. Brownback later backed off the proposal after a huge public outcry.
Weinaug said Brownback's veto earlier this year of funding for an environmental program that provided grants to local governments to help enforce, inspect and monitor water and wastewater systems, was another example of the administration acting without local input. That veto meant Douglas County has to come up with an additional $40,000 per year to continue the program.
And Douglas County District Attorney Charles Branson said the state also stopped helping with a truancy diversion program after several SRS staff members retired. Gilmore's staff said it was checking into the details of the truancy program.
Gilmore said some of the changes in social welfare spending weren't because of a lack of funding but had to do with philosophy. Later, she said, "I view our services, our benefits as a bridge. I really believe that people need to be — and I don't want to sound melodramatic — set free of the encumbrances of being dependent on the government."
Kansas Department of Children and Families Secretary Phyllis Gilmore will meet with community leaders and DCF staff in Lawrence on Thursday as concerns continue to rise about next year's budget.
Gilmore, Deputy Secretary Kathe Decker, Deputy Secretary Anna Pilato and DCF Family Service program directors are scheduled to be at the Lawrence DCF office, 1901 Delaware, at 9:15 a.m.
I plan on covering the visit. Douglas County residents probably recall that Gilmore's predecessor Rob Siedlecki had proposed in July 2011 that the agency — then called the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services — shut down offices in Lawrence and several other towns as a cost-cutting move. That plan was later abandoned by the administration after a huge public outcry.
But this year, Gov. Sam Brownback has directed state agencies propose 10 percent cuts when submitting their budget requests. Brownback has said the directive is part of the budget planning process.
Gilmore has said she has complied with the directive by proposing cuts to operational and administrative costs. Gilmore and her group also plan Thursday visits at DCF offices in Overland Park, Kansas City, and Leavenworth before hitting Atchison, Hiawatha and Concordia on Friday.