Kansas Department for Children and Families Secretary Phyllis Gilmore brushed off two Democrats’ calls for her resignation and defended her agency Wednesday following an audit critical of its oversight of the state’s foster care system.
Gilmore acknowledged that the audit was “negative,” but disputed some of it and said the agency already had started correcting most of the deficiencies cited.
Gilmore, a social worker and former legislator appointed by Republican Gov. Sam Brownback four years ago, said she won’t step down.
“I don’t intend to,” Gilmore said after Wednesday’s Legislative Post Audit hearing. “I serve at the pleasure of the governor.”
The report released Wednesday was published by the Legislature’s independent auditing team. It was intended to evaluate how safe foster care is for Kansas children, who have entered the system in record numbers in recent years.
The auditors found Gilmore’s agency and its contractors performed inadequate background checks of foster parents, missed monthly home checks or at least failed to document them, didn’t adequately investigate some abuse and neglect reports, and gave almost universal exemptions to living space requirements.
The audit came after several high-profile incidents of children harmed while in state custody.
That included the case of Jonathan Schumm, a Topeka city councilman who resigned after he and his wife were brought up on child abuse charges.
The Schumms had more than a dozen children living in their 2,200-square-foot home when a judge agreed with DCF’s recommendation that they be allowed to adopt a child that was being fostered by a lesbian couple in Wichita.
That raised questions about potential bias toward same-sex couples within DCF, but legislators instructed auditors not to investigate that.
Space requirements waived
The audit released Wednesday, however, found that DCF granted exemptions to sleeping space requirements for 98 percent of those requested.
An attorney for the department said most of those exemptions were granted to keep siblings together.
But Sen. Laura Kelly, a Democrat from Topeka, called the process “rubber-stamping” that clearly needs reform.
“An exception should be exactly that — an exception,” Kelly said. “Not a standard operating procedure.”
Gilmore said the department is tightening enforcement of that policy.
She repeatedly told the legislative committee that children are safe in Kansas foster homes. The auditors, she said, examined only 40 of the thousands of safety checks the department oversees each year and found the department’s response lacking in only five.
“That still is not acceptable,” Gilmore said. “But at the same time we realize we will never be perfect. There will always be human error.”
Gilmore urged legislators to look at federal assessments that rank Kansas’ foster care system among the top in the nation for child safety. Those, she said, are more comprehensive than the auditors’ work.
“We can be proud that Kansas is a leader in keeping children safe when they’re in our custody,” Gilmore said.
Rep. Ed Trimmer, a Democrat from Winfield, asked why he should put more stock in the federal assessments, given that the state chooses which cases the federal inspectors examine.
“Why is that a more comprehensive review?" Trimmer asked, adding that major problems had been uncovered in other states with high federal marks.
Background checks lacking
The audit also turned up deficiencies with background checks of prospective foster parents, including some that did not include fingerprints and some that only checked based on parents’ current names. The department failed to provide annual follow-up background checks in nearly all cases.
Gilmore said she is working with another state agency to implement a continuously updating background check system that would notify DCF of any disqualifying arrests after the initial check.
“It is potentially life-saving,” she said.
Gilmore said a survey of employees conducted by the auditors that found high turnover and low morale carry little weight because only 37 percent of those who received the survey responded. Satisfied employees would be less likely to respond, she said, thereby skewing the results.
“Those findings are going to be somewhat misleading because they are not statistically sound,” Gilmore said.
But she cautioned that negative media attention surrounding the audit could lower morale.
Republicans on the committee said the problems described track back several decades through multiple administrations.
Sen. Julia Lynn, a Republican from Olathe, called the audit “painful to listen to.” She reiterated concerns about the 1997 privatization of foster care that now has the state distributing $280 million a year to contractors.
“I’m not so sure that privatizing this really is the answer,” Lynn said.
An audit on the privatization is coming later this year, and DCF is renegotiating contracts.
Meanwhile, Rep. Jarrod Ousley, a Democrat from Merriam, said he and Rep. Jim Ward, a Democrat from Wichita, still want Gilmore to resign.
“Our kids are too valuable to have this sort of leadership,” Ousley said.
Andy Marso is a reporter for KHI News Service in Topeka, a partner in the Heartland Health Monitor team. You can reach him on Twitter @andymarso