Kansas lawmakers push for foster care leadership, autonomous child advocate office

TOPEKA — A Kansas senator said the Kansas Department for Children and Families lied in a foster family report, preventing the family from adopting a child who had lived with them for her entire life.

At a Tuesday news conference at the Statehouse held by several members of a foster care oversight committee, lawmakers accused DCF of spreading misinformation about the child welfare system. Sen. Molly Baumgardner, R-Louisburg, also demanded DCF secretary Laura Howard stop sending foster care children to state contractor Cornerstones of Care.

Baumgardner said she would terminate the contract with Cornerstones of Care in the snap of a finger if possible and support a change in DCF leadership. When asked what she would replace the contractor with, Baumgardner said she didn’t have an alternative in mind.

“I don’t, but to continue what we’re doing knowing there’s all these problems is being blind to the reality,” Baumgardner said in an interview after the news conference.

Cornerstones of Care holds the state contract to provide foster care services in the Kansas City area.

DCF spokesman Mike Deines said the department was working with Cornerstones of Care to improve foster child placement.

“Every day we strive to do the best for children in complex situations,” Deines said in an written statement to the Kansas Reflector. “We will continue supporting the children in our care, including by reviewing policies around how kinship – including sibling relationships – and attachments are considered in care decisions. We will also continue working with Cornerstones of Care to improve their communication with families.”

The news conference was held a month before the November election, with concerns about the foster care system an issue in the campaign between gubernatorial candidates Derek Schmidt and Laura Kelly.

Comittee chairwoman Rep. Susan Concannon, R-Beloit, said she wanted more transparency but did not want to comment on Cornerstones of Care or its handling of adoption cases. Concannon said she was just trying to get more information on the foster care system.

“Everything’s so secretive in foster care,” Concannon said. “For me, the solution was to develop this committee, which we did with my legislation a couple years ago. But to have this oversight, we need to be able to have questions answered and we just keep getting a runaround all the time.”

Rep. Susan Concannon said she just wants more transparency in the foster care system. (Rachel Mipro/Kansas Reflector)

Baumgardner said she heard constant complaints from foster families across the state and said many foster families were refusing to foster because of the way they were treated by DCF and state contractors.

In June, a federal watchdog agency found that Kansas had one of the highest rates of missing foster children from July 1, 2018, to Dec. 31, 2020. As of Monday, DCF reported 63 of approximately 6,200 foster care children were unaccounted for.

According to Baumgardner, 487 families have stopped fostering since May 2020, and the department never followed up on why they decided to quit. Baumgardner also questioned the efficacy of the new Division of the Child Advocate, mentioning the office’s 69 unresolved cases.

Kelly, the Democratic governor, created the division with an executive order to meet the demands of an overburdened foster care system after the House and Senate couldn’t agree on a proposed office. Republicans have criticized the move, saying children in foster care should have independent oversight, instead of being under the administration of the governor.

Baumgardner and other lawmakers at the meeting said they are going to push for legislation that would put the Division of the Child Advocate under statute, taking it out from under the governor’s oversight and making it fully autonomous.

“We have organizations with DCF that have truly failed our children and our families in Kansas,’ Baumgardner said.

Nicole and John DeHaven speak about their experiences with the foster care system ahead of Monday's committee meeting.  (Rachel Mipro/Kansas Reflector)
Nicole and John DeHaven speak about their experiences with the foster care system ahead a committee meeting in September. (Rachel Mipro/Kansas Reflector)

The committee plans to meet soon to go over the DeHaven family case. The couple spoke at the Sept. 12 Kansas Child Welfare Oversight Committee meeting, asking that their situation be looked into. Nicole DeHaven and her husband, John, have raised their foster daughter since she was three days old, alongside their adopted 2-year-old son.

When the DeHavens tried to adopt her, the couple was told they would have to also adopt her three half-siblings. They declined because they did not have enough resources to care for additional children, and were later deemed unfit to adopt their foster daughter, who is now set to be adopted with her half-siblings.

At one point in the hour-long news conference, Baumgardner held up a printed Facebook post of the siblings in question. She had scribbled out their faces in black ink for privacy purposes. The post by Adopt Kansas Kids said the siblings had a close relationship and wanted to be adopted together.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” Baumgardner said. “At most she has spent 100 hours of her lifetime with those older siblings. Is that a close relationship?”

Rep Suzi Carlson, R-Clay Center, said she deplored the practice of posting foster kids eligible for adoption on Facebook.

“That’s what they do for the animal shelters,” Carlson said.

Baumgardner said the proposed adoptive family had a GoFundMe posted, soliciting funding for beds, mattresses, clothes and other items needed for the siblings’ upkeep.

She said DCF made a false report about the DeHavens because the report inaccurately said there had been no emotional bonding assessment for the DeHavens’ foster daughter.

“Most every one of the accusations we’ve received from our secretary of DCF is inaccurate. To me, that makes it a lie, and it is insulting to me as an elected legislator,” Baumgardner said.

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