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Sunday, July 27, 2014

House passes bill boosting grandparents who seek custody in abuse cases

BY BRENT D. WISTROM AND FRED MANN
Eagle Topeka bureau

Courts would have to give grandparents preferential treatment when placing abused children in new homes under a law given tentative approval by the House on Tuesday.

Senate Bill 262 says grandparents “shall receive preference” when a child is removed from a home and isn’t placed with one of its parents and a grandparent has requested custody.

When courts don’t give custody to a grandparent who requested custody, the secretary of the Department of Social and Rehabilitative Services would have to write a report citing why custody wasn’t given to the grandparent.

“By no means does that mean they have to be placed with the grandparent,” said Rep. Greg Smith, R-Overland Park. “They’re placed with whoever is in the best interest of the child’s safety.”

The bill passed on a voice vote and will face a final House vote today. It then would go back to the Senate, which approved different wording in the bill.

Two Sedgwick County district court judges who deal with custody cases said the bill isn’t likely to change their approach to such cases.

Judge James Burgess said grandparents always have been an integral part in trying to resolve custody cases for him. Sometimes it takes time to figure out what’s best for a child, but relatives are considered throughout any case, he said.

“Kinship is always a preferred alternative to us,” Burgess said. “It doesn’t always work, but it’s always investigated.”

Judge Dan Brooks said, “I’m always on the lookout for grandparents and relatives, anyway.”

Rep. Mike Kiegerl, R-Olathe, said the House Committee on Children and Families has held hearings on this issue through the years and discovered cases where grandparents didn’t have enough information or hadn’t been notified about placement of a grandchild.

“I think this bill will go a long ways towards making it more equitable and helping those people who would like to take care of their grandchildren,” he said.

Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, D-Wichita, spearheaded the bill in the Senate. A Senate panel amended the bill to say that grandparents “may” get “consideration” in child in need of care cases. But Faust-Goudeau amended the bill on the Senate floor to say grandparents “shall” get “consideration.”

After Faust-Goudeau and others testified in favor of the bill in front of a House panel, the panel changed the language to say that grandparents “shall receive preference.”

Faust-Goudeau said that in the past, some argued that grandparents were too old to provide for grandchildren, didn’t have enough money, or that “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” meaning grandchildren shouldn’t be turned over to people who raised parents who abused their kids.

Those arguments are unfair, she said.

“I want what’s in the best interests of the child,” she said. “Sometimes grandparents may not be the right place for the children. I’m just saying we should certainly consider them.”

Wendell Turner, speaker of the Kansas Silver-Haired Legislature, fought for the bill for three years.

“We’re not saying every grandparent should get custody of every grandchild,:” Turner said. “We want to be heard. We want the best for the kids.”

The bill will save the state money by keeping kids with family members rather than institutions or in foster care, Faust-Goudeau said.

“We’re saving money and we’re keeping families together,” she said.

In 2004, Faust-Goudeau advocated for a grandparents-as-caregivers bill that provided financial assistance to grandparents who care for children. Last year, she got a bill passed giving grandparents interested-party status in courtrooms and requiring that they receive automatic notice of hearings regarding placement of their grandchildren.

The new bill strengthens last year’s bill, she said.

“I’m just so happy for the grandparents and children this bill will help,” she said.

Reach Brent Wistrom at 785-296-3006 or bwistrom@wichitaeagle.com.

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