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Closing arguments set in adoption case involving FaithBuilders director

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014, at 7:58 p.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2014, at 7:32 a.m.

Closing arguments will be heard Wednesday morning in a Sedgwick County juvenile court to determine whether a 2-year-old girl will be adopted by her foster parents or her great-grandmother.

Thirteen witnesses testified in the trial over a six-day period, which was interrupted by a two-week break.

A deciding factor is whether Judge Robb Rumsey finds that the Kansas Department for Children and Families made a reasonable effort in approving a decision to place the girl and her 3-year-old brother with their 67-year-old great-grandmother in South Carolina.

Andrea Dixon, founder and executive director of FaithBuilders, and her husband have been foster parents to the girl since shortly after her birth. The boy, who was in another Wichita foster home for about two years, has been adopted by the paternal great-grandmother and went home with her on Dec. 19.

Leah Gagne, attorney for the Dixons, also is asking the court to rule whether DCF had considered the girl’s best interest in deciding to send both children to the great-grandmother.

When it comes to adoption, a Kansas statute says the court should give preference to a relative as long as the court finds it’s in the child’s best interest. The second consideration should go to a person “with whom the child has close emotional ties.”

The Dixons’ case has largely been based on their claims that the girl has bonded with them.

During the final day of testimony Tuesday, a child advocate discussed those attachments and whether a child is hurt by being taken away from foster parents. Vera Zahner and her husband served as Court Appointed Special Advocate workers for the boy.

Zahner, who is in her late 60s and a retired nurse, said that she was adopted and used that life experience to help assess needs of children who are being considered for adoption and leaving foster care homes.

“As you mature and you wonder who you are and where you came from,” she testified, “there will be a time when they grow out of age 1, 2 and 3 and wonder about the world around them. Who am I?”

“Did you feel a loss?” asked Lynnette Herrman, attorney for the great-grandmother.

“It was more a curiosity than a sense of loss,” Zahner replied.

In regard to siblings being kept together during an adoption, Zahner testified earlier Tuesday that life span usually dictates that children have a longer relationship with their siblings than their parents.

Cultural history also continued to be a factor in the final day of testimony. The Dixons are white; the children and their biological family are African-American.

The great-grandmother cited her concern for children – regardless of race – being raised by family who know their culture. Zahner agreed in her testimony.

“In your opinion, do you believe it’s never appropriate for a white family to adopt a black child?” Gagne asked Zahner.

“I believe it’s appropriate if there’s not an appropriate kinship placement,” Zahner said. “You have to put the child first.”

Parental rights to the boy, girl and their three older sisters – ages 4, 5 and 6 – were given up in July 2012. On March 25, 2013, DCF approved a sibling split so the three older girls could be adopted by an uncle in North Carolina. He said at the time he couldn’t take more children, according to testimony.

On Nov. 4, a 15-member committee made up of those with knowledge of the families and children – known as a best interest staffing – met to discuss the great-grandmother’s request to adopt both children. Six were qualified to vote, and they were unanimous in their decision that the boy and girl should go to the great-grandmother, according to testimony.

Gagne has challenged the makeup of that committee, saying that no one in the group had extended knowledge of the girl and didn’t consider her best interest.

Normally, the BIS group would include a foster parent of the child – and it did in the case of the boy because his foster family wasn’t interested in adopting the boy. The Dixons were not allowed to attend because they wanted to adopt the girl, and that was seen as a conflict of interest.

During Monday’s session of the trial, the judge was given a copy of the DCF regulations governing BIS that made no reference to conflict of interest as a reason to exclude the foster parents. Rumsey challenged the BIS facilitator on why the Dixons weren’t allowed to attend to give input.

But the copy he received had been revised Jan. 1 and the conflict-of-interest language had been taken out, DCF attorney Roger McDaniel said Tuesday. The regulations that were in effect at the time of the November review still said that foster parents could participate only if there wasn’t a conflict of interest.

DCF recently completed a three-month investigation into its Wichita region office that found Dixon was provided confidential information and the office gave Dixon and FaithBuilders preferential treatment when it came to child placement decisions. FaithBuilders has 30 respite and foster care homes in Wichita.

Diane Bidwell resigned as director of the Wichita office in mid-October. Carol Baker, a high-ranking administrator in the office, was placed on administrative leave about the same time.

Baker was no longer a DCF employee, effective Jan. 24, DCF spokeswoman Theresa Freed said in an e-mail Tuesday.

Reach Rick Plumlee at 316-268-6660 or rplumlee@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @rickplumlee.

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