Politics & Government

Lawmakers approve audit into foster care safety without question on same-sex couples

The Legislative Post Audit Committee approved an audit of DCF focused on safety and privatization.
The Legislative Post Audit Committee approved an audit of DCF focused on safety and privatization. File photo

Kansas lawmakers have approved an audit into whether the Kansas Department for Children and Families has done enough to ensure safety of children in foster homes.

But it will not include a question about whether the agency discriminates against same-sex couples.

DCF, which handles the state’s foster care and adoption systems, has faced allegations in recent months that it weighs sexual orientation in foster care placements.

A legislative panel deadlocked Wednesday on whether to investigate these allegations as part of an audit. The Legislative Post Audit Committee eventually decided to delay that issue until its April meeting and instead approved a more general audit of DCF.

The audit will explore seven questions focusing on the care and safety of children and on whether privatization has affected the outcomes of cases.

“This is the most comprehensive investigation of … the foster care system in the history of our state,” said Sen. Michael O’Donnell, R-Wichita.

The question left out of the audit was: “What are DCF’s formal policies and actual practices regarding the placement of foster care and adoptive children with same-sex couples, and how do they compare to those in other states?”

Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, the lawmaker who had proposed an audit into claims of discrimination, called that omission “simply unbelievable,” adding, “they voted to cover up evidence of discrimination in a major state agency.”

In recent months, several couples have stepped forward to accuse DCF of discrimination. Legal documents in two cases showed that DCF officials discussed the sexual orientation of foster parents when recommending they be moved from those placements.

Ward had given the committee signed statements from 13 attorneys saying they had evidence that DCF had weighed sexual orientation in adoption and foster care cases. The lawyers are barred from disclosing that evidence because of confidentiality laws but could share it if a state audit was approved.

Same-sex couples question

Jeff Kahrs, the chief of staff for DCF Secretary Phyllis Gilmore and brother of Wichita Republican Rep. Mark Kahrs, dissuaded lawmakers from including the question about same-sex couples in the audit.

Gilmore had said in December that an audit would show that the allegations against the agency were false.

Jeff Kahrs said in a statement Wednesday that DCF supports a fair and thorough audit of the foster care system.

However, he said, “we strongly object to the accusatory, inflammatory and overall biased language as was proposed in the question pertaining to homosexuality. The audit language presupposed that an anti-homosexual agenda exists within DCF, and that its staff and/or its contractors have somehow misused their authority on placement decisions. …”

“The audit question further inferred that homosexuals should have special rights to be foster/adoptive parents – making placement decisions about the adults, not the children,” Kahrs continued. “The only question that should be of concern is what is in the best interest of children.”

O’Donnell said the committee tabled the question about same-sex couples because it was the one piece of contention and added that lawmakers will return to the issue in April.

“It’s still there,” said Rep. John Barker, R-Abilene, the committee’s chair. “I preserved it. I wanted to preserve it because I think we need to look at it.”

Barker said he would not comment on DCF’s opposition to the question.

Tom Witt, executive director of Equality Kansas, a gay rights group, called the decision an attempt to “cover up DCF’s repugnant discriminatory practices.”

“The State of Kansas is snatching children from gay and lesbian households and placing them with families that don’t want them, or worse, placing them with alleged abusers in crowded, unsafe conditions,” Witt said. “This deserves a full public investigation, not a whitewash.”

Seven questions to investigate

O’Donnell emphasized the importance of the questions the state will investigate, which are a response to stories about children who died in state custody in recent years.

“We got the main huge issue regarding privatization and child placements. … I do not believe that DCF is happy that we’re even that far, because they’ve never had an audit that big,” O’Donnell said.

The committee approved these seven questions for state auditors to investigate:

▪ Is DCF following adequate policies and procedures to ensure the safety of children during the removal and placement process?

▪ Does DCF’s child placement process help ensure that children are placed in foster care or adoptive homes with a sufficient living space and sufficient financial resources?

▪ Are DCF’s criteria for recommendations regarding the removal and placement of children designed to help keep families together as much as possible?

▪ Does DCF ensure that all applicable state and federal laws governing the foster care system in Kansas are followed?

▪ Do foster care contractors have sufficient capacity to provide necessary foster care services?

▪ Has the privatization of foster care and adoption significantly affected outcomes for children and families?

▪ Has the privatization of state foster care and adoption significantly affected the cost of those services to the state?

Asked about the audit and the agency’s opposition to including the question about discrimination, DCF spokeswoman Theresa Freed said in an e-mail, “We support a fair and thorough audit.”

Bryan Lowry: 785-296-3006, @BryanLowry3