TOPEKA — Department for Children and Families Secretary Phyllis Gilmore on Tuesday condemned the “distraction” caused by lawmakers accusing the agency of discriminating against same-sex couples in foster care cases.
“If ever the distraction of that issue for political means results in a child death, I think, I would say, ‘Shame on the legislators who are politicizing that,’ ” Gilmore said.
Gilmore engaged the House Children and Seniors Committee in a lengthy question-and-answer period where she vehemently pushed back against accusations of discrimination.
Separately, the legislative post auditor apologized Tuesday to lawmakers for incorrectly interpreting legislative rules to allow DCF deputy secretary Jeff Kahrs to speak to the Legislative Post Audit Committee last week, where he lambasted a proposed audit into alleged discrimination by the agency.
Gilmore said the conclusion of a 2013 court case — where a Johnson County judge blasted DCF for creating a case against a lesbian woman looking to adopt a child she had fostered — supports DCF’s actions. Multiple media outlets obtained a copy of the judge’s ruling.
But Gilmore was unable to provide many details, citing confidentiality requirements. Court records show one of the women in the 2013 case sought a protection order against the other in November 2014.
“I cannot tell you strongly enough how I wish that case could be talked about in its entirety,” Gilmore said.
“And the part that was leaked by whomever, we can guess but we don’t know, and it’s denied, and anyway, we can assume — neglected to have the conclusion of that case. And I can tell you the conclusion of that case vindicates the department.”
In the 2013 adoption case, Judge Kathleen Sloan removed a then 2-year-old boy from state custody after finding the Department for Children and Families had gone to extraordinary measures to create a case against a lesbian woman who wanted to adopt the foster child she had cared for since birth.
More than a dozen attorneys have also said the “specter of alleged wrongdoing” now clouds foster care and adoption cases. A number of same-sex couples have also shared allegations of discriminatory treatment with the Topeka Capital-Journal and other media.
Gilmore also defended the agency’s opposition to a proposed audit of potential discrimination at DCF. Last week, the Legislative Post Audit Committee didn’t approve that audit question, but did approve several questions related to foster care safety.
Kahrs called the audit proposal to look into alleged discrimination biased, and Gilmore on Tuesday called it accusatory in response to a question from Rep. Jarrod Ousley, a Merriam Democrat who read the audit question aloud.
“Did you hear me read the language in there? Did you hear anything accusatory or inflaming or offensive?” Ousley said after the meeting.
But Kahrs should never have been allowed to address the committee, according to an email provided to The Capital-Journal. Scott Frank, the legislative post auditor, apologized to the committee members in an email sent early Tuesday afternoon, saying he incorrectly applied the committee’s rules.
The Legislative Post Audit Committee’s executive committee can waive a rule prohibiting outside testimony, which they did during last week’s meeting to allow Kahrs to speak. The members have to waive the rule in advance of the meeting, however, something they didn’t do. At the meeting, Frank didn’t advise lawmakers of the advance requirement.
“Had the rule been applied correctly, Mr. Kahrs’ testimony would not have been allowed. I apologize for the error and will be careful not to make the same mistake in the future,” Frank wrote in the email.
At the House panel, Rep. Willie Dove, R-Bonner Springs, said there are consequences for children who have been taken from straight couples and placed with same-sex couples.
“I think that it would be very confusing to a child to go from a traditional husband and wife family to what some would call a nontraditional,” Dove said.
“And that would be very, very confusing and I think would cause some severe problems as that child is growing up not knowing what is really going on.”
Beyond questions of gay and lesbian foster parents, Gilmore promoted the agency’s work. She said DCF is thinking about itself as the “agency of opportunity” rather than a welfare agency.
DCF needs more social workers, Gilmore said. She attributed part of the difficulty in finding and retaining workers to salaries, which she acknowledged aren’t always competitive.
The less-than-competitive pay for the positions has been true of the agency for years, she indicated, and hasn’t been caused by the current budget pressure facing Kansas.
Dove said that while he didn’t disagree social workers should perhaps earn more, he said pay wasn’t a primary reason for staffing troubles. He called the idea the agency was losing workers because of pay “far-fetched.”
“I contend they do it because it needs to be done. And for anyone on this board to think that people get involved in those occupations because of dollars just doesn’t make any sense,” Dove said.
The agency may also be coming close to revealing the results of its review of foster care licensing, Gilmore said. The review has been ongoing since DCF took over foster care licensure from the Kansas Department for Health and Environment last year.
At the end of the meeting, Rep. Connie O’Brien, a Tonganoxie Republican and the committee chairwoman, introduced a bill to create an oversight panel for foster care similar to the oversight committee that currently oversees KanCare.