Politics & Government

More same-sex couples accuse DCF of discrimination

Krista Casmaer, left, along with Mindy Kufahl, right, and Kufahl’s daughter Phoebe Edgerton-Kufahl, who was not the child at the center of their foster parenting case, are two of several gays and lesbians who say that the Kansas Department for Children and Families has discriminated against them in adoption and foster care cases.
Krista Casmaer, left, along with Mindy Kufahl, right, and Kufahl’s daughter Phoebe Edgerton-Kufahl, who was not the child at the center of their foster parenting case, are two of several gays and lesbians who say that the Kansas Department for Children and Families has discriminated against them in adoption and foster care cases. The Wichita Eagle

More same-sex couples are saying they faced unfair treatment from the Kansas Department for Children and Families after two cases surfaced showing the agency recommended taking children from lesbian foster parents who sought to adopt.

The issue came to light after a Topeka heterosexual couple, whom the DCF recommended as adoptive parents over a Wichita lesbian couple, were arrested on child abuse charges. Lisa Hines and Tesa Hines say the DCF opposed their adoption because of their sexual orientation.

On Friday, a 2013 sealed ruling in a separate case was widely circulated. In it, a judge wrote that “in essence, DCF conducted a ‘witch hunt’ and made a concerted, purposeful effort … to obtain negative information” about a lesbian couple seeking to adopt an infant they had cared for since birth.

The DCF has repeatedly said it doesn’t show preference to heterosexual couples as foster and adoptive parents over gays and lesbians in committed relationships. It says it cannot comment on specific cases, citing confidentiality laws.

Now, two other couples say and another document shows that the DCF has weighed sexual orientation in their cases.

Aimee Kozushko, a Derby resident, said she and her wife got a call from the DCF last year with word their adoption had been approved for a foster daughter they had taken care of for four years since she was 9 months old. But 30 minutes later, the phone rang again and they were told there had been a mistake.

“We were so elated and so happy and then devastated the next minute,” Kozushko said, sobbing.

Kozushko said the DCF recommended the girl be moved out of state to live with a biological relative the girl had not met. She said the decision was made against therapists’ recommendations.

“It’s not just us who lost our daughter,” she said. “It’s my sons, who lost the only sister they’ve ever known, and she lost the only brothers she’s ever known and grandparents. All of it.”

The couple had adopted a boy they had fostered in 2011 without much difficulty. However, in 2014, when they sought to adopt three more foster children, including the girl who was moved out of state, they faced resistance from the DCF. In each case, the DCF recommended other families. The couple prevailed in court on one case and were able to adopt their son. In the other cases, the children were sent to other families.

“They broke us, and all we wanted to do is help. And they broke children. They can never take the trauma away,” Kozushko said.

A DCF caseworker recommended that Kozushko would be the best adoptive fit for the foster son she was trying to adopt. The agency overturned the recommendation.

“We were just so overwhelmed and bullied. It felt like every other day was a hit,” she said.

The adoptions took place before the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage, so Kozushko had to adopt as a single parent, meaning only her income would be weighed even though she was part of a two-parent home. She said that weakened the application.

Kozushko and her wife are both certified to teach training on how to be a foster care parent.

A Sedgwick County judge ruled against the DCF and approved the couple’s adoption of their son, Takoda.

Not in best interest

The circumstance is similar to the 2013 case in Johnson County made public this week in which a judge ruled that the DCF had not acted in the best interest of a child by removing him from a home where a lesbian couple had cared for him since he was 3 days old.

The judge in that case, Kathleen Sloan, blasted the agency for worrying more about foster parents’ sexual orientation than the best interest of the child. Her ruling contains excerpts of e-mails from DCF officials in which they discuss the need to obtain negative psychological and medical evaluations and efforts to revoke the couple’s foster care license through emergency safety inspections.

Agency spokeswoman Theresa Freed said in an e-mail Wednesday that the DCF “is bound by confidentiality laws that require us to protect the privacy of those we serve. We cannot comment on specific cases or confirm our agency’s involvement with any family.”

Kari Schmidt, a Wichita attorney representing the Hineses, the lesbian couple rejected as adoptive parents in favor of a Topeka couple now involved in a child abuse case, said the confidentiality laws exist to protect children, but they have also allowed the agency to avoid accountability. Schmidt’s clients stepped forward only after Jonathan and Allison Schumm, who had been granted custody of the Hineses’ former foster child, were arrested on child abuse charges last month.

Tom Witt, executive director of the gay-rights group Equality Kansas, said in an e-mail that it’s “clear there’s a pattern of discrimination in the way DCF officials mistreat gay and lesbian parents.” He called for an investigation of the agency.

‘No way we could say no’

In another Wichita case, a DCF official appeared to view the sexual orientation of both a teen in foster care and her foster parents with concern.

DCF official Carol Baker stated in a 2013 court document that the case involving a 16-year-old girl had become clouded by the teen’s “current life style (currently sees herself as a lesbian) and her same sex foster parents active support of her sexual acting out.”

Mindy Kufahl, a Wichita resident, said she and her partner had fostered the girl for about six months before the court report. More than two years have passed, but she’s still moved to tears when discussing it.

“So being a lesbian is sexual acting out in their book. It’s rebellion. And it’s a ‘lifestyle,’ not just part of who she is,” Kufahl said.

The girl had numerous issues, including a history of truancy and drug use, before coming into their home, but another challenge was that her mother reacted violently when she revealed she is gay, Kufahl said.

Youthville, a foster care provider that contracts with the DCF, approached the couple, who had a background in drug treatment and juvenile counseling, about fostering the girl.

“We got this call about this 16-year-old lesbian who needed to be placed and they were having trouble finding placement for her, and there was no way we could say no,” Kufahl said. “She also had substance abuse issues, mental health issues. … We knew we were taking on a difficult kid, but we didn’t feel like we could say no.”

Kufahl now works as a case manager at an in-patient drug and alcohol center. At the time she was fostering the child, she had been working in a home for kids in the state’s juvenile justice system. Her former partner, Krista Casmaer, was a substance abuse counselor and intensive supervision officer with the Juvenile Justice Authority.

Still in contact

After the 16-year-old girl faced a battery charge stemming from an incident at school, she ran away while in their care – a behavior that had helped land her in the DCF system in the first place. The agency recommended terminating the couple’s custody.

A month later, the girl called the couple from Topeka and asked them to pick her up so she could turn herself in, they said.

“It wasn’t like she was mistreated or abused in any way in our home or she couldn’t stand to be here, or she would have never called us to pick her up and turn herself in,” Casmaer said.

The DCF report said that the girl’s mental health needs were not being met in the foster home and that she needed “a higher level of care which will not just focus on her sexual orientation but will focus on her behaviors.”

The Eagle wasn’t able to interview the young woman, who is now 19 and living on her own.

Casmaer said the DCF’s Baker did not interview the couple when she was making that assessment for the court report. If they had been allowed, the couple would have disputed it in court.

The girl was placed in a juvenile residential facility. The DCF recommended the long-term goal of reuniting her with her mother, who the DCF said “is clear what her personal values are and her expectations of her 16 year old daughter’s behaviors.”

The experience was so traumatic for the couple, Kufahl said, that they chose not to renew their foster care license in 2014.

“Just emotionally, we were not in a place to keep doing this,” she said.

The couple has separated. Both women remain in contact with their former foster daughter. Casmaer noted with disappointment that their foster daughter did not finish high school, contending she would have had she had been allowed to remain in their home.

“It was very traumatic, because like I said, we loved her very much,” Casmaer said. “I mean, as soon as she turned 18, she’s been in contact with us. She’s still in contact with us. I mean, she came to Thanksgiving at our house last year right after she turned 18 and was out of custody.”

Kufahl said she was initially reluctant to come forward but decided to do so after other couples began to share their stories, in the hope it will help effect change.

“It’s not really about us anymore. It’s really about other families,” she said.

Bryan Lowry: 785-296-3006, @BryanLowry3