Kansas lawmakers delayed a decision Thursday on an audit into claims of discrimination leveled at the Kansas Department for Children and Families.
Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, sought the audit after a Wichita lesbian couple accused the agency of selecting a Topeka heterosexual couple over them as adoptive parents last year on the basis of their sexual orientation. The Topeka couple now face child abuse charges.
Ward presented signed letters from attorneys who say they have evidence that DCF discriminates against same-sex couples but that they cannot disclose it because of confidentiality laws. A state audit would create an exception so that evidence could become public.
“The system must operate above reproach, and to allow these concerns to linger without investigation will only jeopardize more children and families in the State of Kansas,” said one letter, signed by 12 lawyers.
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The system must operate above reproach, and to allow these concerns to linger without investigation will only jeopardize more children and families in the State of Kansas.
Letter from Kansas attorneys
In another letter, Johnson County Attorney Edward Bigus wrote that DCF refused to consider the income of the wife of a child’s grandmother when the couple tried to adopt, “rendering the potential adoption improbable based on lack of income. They would not consider the income because they would not recognize the marriage in another state as they were same-sex partners.”
Bigus says he has court transcripts that would show DCF’s negative view of same-sex marriage, but they can only be disclosed with an audit. DCF has a stated policy to show a preference to relatives when granting custody. Bigus’ claim that the agency disfavored a child’s grandmother based on her sexual orientation runs counter to that.
Proposal for audit
Theresa Freed, a spokeswoman for DCF, said in an e-mail that “our statement remains the same … we have no policy on same-sex couples. Our priority is ensuring the best interest of the child.”
Tesa Rigel Hines, one of the women whose allegations of discrimination first prompted scrutiny, said she thinks “it is very scary for DCF to possibly be put under the microscope.”
Our priority is ensuring the best interest of the child.
Theresa Freed, spokeswoman for Kansas Department for Children and Families
Republican lawmakers on the Legislative Post-Audit Committee expressed concern that Ward’s request for an audit was too narrow, saying there should be a comprehensive review of the foster care system instead. The committee voted against a request Ward brought in July to audit whether DCF was doing enough to ensure the safety of children in the foster care system.
The committee could have voted on a broader alternative Thursday but chose to wait until January. Sen. Michael O’Donnell, R-Wichita, said that would allow lawmakers time to come up with “the best audit possible.”
Gov. Sam Brownback pushed back against claims of discrimination earlier this week and expressed support for a more general review of the foster care system.
Ward said he was disappointed by the delay but called it a step forward that the committee will weigh a comprehensive audit proposal in January. He said he wants to make sure that lawmakers do not drop the issue of discrimination. He pointed out that DCF Secretary Phyllis Gilmore had said last week that she welcomed an audit.
Tom Witt, executive director of the LGBT rights group Equality Kansas, said in an e-mail that his organization is disappointed in a delay “in holding the Department of Children and Families accountable for discrimination and harassment of lesbian and gay couples. We are calling for a full, complete investigation into DCF placement practices.”
Child abuse charges
Rigel Hines, a social worker, said she supported a comprehensive audit into DCF provided that it also tackle discrimination.
Her wife, Lisa Hines, a professor at Wichita State University, said she thought an audit would show that heterosexual couples are given preference by the agency.
“There’s institutional discrimination going on in that building. There’s decisions being made that are not in the best interest of children,” Hines said.
There’s institutional discrimination going on in that building. There’s decisions being made that are not in the best interest of children.
Lisa Hines, professor of social work at Wichita State University
The couple fostered a girl for 11 months and sought to adopt, but she was placed with Topeka City Council member Jonathan Schumm and his wife, Allison, instead on the strength of DCF’s recommendation, which cited that the Schumms had adopted the child’s half-siblings. That couple were arrested last month on charges of child abuse, and the girl has gone back into the foster care system.
Hines said it has been difficult to function since learning of the allegations of abuse in the home.
“I barely sleep. I mean I’m up at 2, 3, 4 ’o clock in the morning,” she said. “I don’t know if she’s safe.” She said the couple still considers the girl their child and that she doesn’t trust DCF to place her in a safe environment. They remain licensed foster parents. They seek to have the girl returned to their home, but have so far made little progress.
Other couples come forward
The Hineses’ decision to speak out has prompted more couples to come forward.
Jenny and Rachel Kling, a lesbian couple from Liebenthal, tried to adopt three sisters they had fostered for two years. They said they were shocked when a DCF contractor decided in August to move the girls in with an aunt, who filed for bankruptcy in 2013.
Jenny Kling is a former teacher and Rachel Kling is an Army veteran. They run a pair of restaurants in western Kansas.
The girls ranged in age from 6 months to 7 years when the couple took them into their home, Jenny Kling said. The infant had health complications, she said.
The couple sought medical treatment for the children, enrolled them in 4-H and T-ball, and took them skiing in Colorado. “We did many family activities. The kids loved to bowl. They loved to go to the zoo. You name it, we did it. Just so they had that exposure to those types of things,” she said.
The girls began to call both women “Mama,” she said.
A few months after they began fostering the girls, St. Francis Community Services, the state’s foster care contractor, approved monthly overnight visits with the girls’ biological aunt, who lived in the Wichita area.
All of a sudden, we get a letter saying we weren’t the best fit for these girls – although we have financial stability, our marriage is great, our house is beautiful ...
Rachel Kling, foster parent
Jenny Kling said they had concerns about cleanliness at the aunt’s house and that the girls would come home dirty and worried about bugs. The Klings and the girls reported the situation to St. Francis, but the foster care provider did not stop the visits, Kling said, adding that she and her wife eventually were reprimanded by the caseworker for reporting too much and told to stop e-mailing.
The aunt could not be reached by phone Thursday.
The couple sought to adopt, but St. Francis recommended the aunt as a better option, Rachel Kling said.
“All of a sudden we check the mail one day and we get a letter saying we weren’t the best fit for these girls – although we have financial stability, our marriage is great, our house is beautiful and all this, but they feel that the girls should be with family,” Rachel Kling said.
The girls were moved in September and the aunt’s adoption of them is supposed to be finalized this month, Jenny Kling said.
The Klings say neither DCF nor St. Francis raised the issue of sexual orientation with them, but that they suspect it played a role.
Vickee Spicer, spokeswoman for St. Francis, said she could not comment specifically on the Klings’ case.
“I know that there’s always disappointment when those things happen,” she said when told some of the details of the case. “They look at a number of things and when at all possible they try to keep kids together and keep them with family.”
They look at a number of things and when at all possible they try to keep kids together and keep them with family.
Vickee Spicer, spokeswoman for St. Francis Community Services
She noted that St. Francis is affiliated with the Episcopal Church, which has openly gay clergy and historically has been among the denominations that are more supportive of gay rights.
“Any decisions that we’re involved with is always looking at what’s best for the child, what’s going to keep them safe and aligns with policies that have been set forth (by DCF), such as situations where we try to keep children together that are in the same family. … We also try to whenever possible have the children placed in kinship care, so that they may be with a relative, with a grandparent,” Spicer said. “We always look at those opportunities first … and that’s also what DCF says.”