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Kansas might give foster families more sway in adoptions. Critics worry that will delay placements

The Kansas Department for Children and Families sign
Blaise Mesa
Kansas News Service
The Kansas Department for Children and Families sign

Appealing placement decisions to the Kansas Court of Appeals would mark a new, controversial step.

TOPEKA, Kansas — Some Kansas lawmakers want to give foster parents more sway in adoption cases.

But that’s sparked worries that it could trigger drawn-out custody fights that might leave children in limbo waiting for a permanent home.

A bill pending in the Legislature would let foster parents appeal placement decisions to the Kansas Court of Appeals. Under existing law, a district court judge’s ruling on child placements is final.

Adoption processes already can drag out because courts are reluctant to terminate parental rights. When those rights are terminated, a best-interest staffing meeting — a meeting between prospective adoptive parents, foster care agencies and court personnel — sorts out who is in line to adopt a child.

Families who aren’t in line for adoption can plead their case to the Kansas Department for Children and Families to become the first option for adoption. If that doesn’t work, those families can petition a district court judge directly and argue why they should get the kids. Then a single judge makes the decision.

Foster parents and some lawmakers say they need some way to appeal those judge’s rulings.

All the existing appeal options come before a judge's decision. In some cases, a judge’s ruling conflicts directly with recommendations made by DCF.

State Rep. Susan Humphries, a Wichita Republican, said she knows cases where foster families lose children they’ve loved for years.

“This foster family … the last time they heard their child’s cry was, ‘I want to go back to mommy and daddy,’” she said. “It’s heartbreaking.”

Humphries said something needs to be done to prevent bad outcomes.

But appealing to a higher court does not mean a quick resolution. Those decisions can take up to a year.

Opponents of the bill fear this scenario: A child is finally placed with a family for what should be their permanent home. An appeal by foster parents drags out the case, making the child wonder for months or years who their parents will be and where they will live.

“The stress of not knowing which way (a case) will go … is a lot for a kid who already has some kind of trauma to have to endure,” said Kate Zigtema, an attorney who has experience in family law.

Zigtema said the terms of the bill would make children wait in uncertainty and would tilt outcomes too heavily toward foster parents.

The bill only lets foster parents appeal and doesn’t give that same privilege to a child’s biological relatives. It also amends state law to say foster parents who have had a child more than a year should get more consideration in an adoption case if a child has lived with them for more than half of their life or lived with that family for more than two years.

The bill has mixed support even from people who spoke in favor of it. It was first heard in a legislative committee in early February. It had four supporters, yet all four people either recommended changes to the language around appeals or urged the Legislature to do further study of possible unintended consequences.

That includes foster care agency KVC Kansas, FosterAdopt Connect, the Children’s Alliance of Kansas and the Division of the Child Advocate. Zigtema worried that professionals could have so many misgivings about a change that could become law.

“To have so many professionals … say, ‘Whoa, we don't like this, this is going to cause problems,’” she said. “For the Legislature to completely disregard the concerns of the professionals in the field feels like we're setting ourselves up for disaster.”

The bill was almost amended in committee to remove provisions about the appeal process, but the amendment striking the language failed on a 5-7 vote.

The bill was first approved by the House Child Welfare and Foster Care Committee in February. It was put up for a vote in the full House, but lawmakers skipped it and sent it back to the committee to be reworked.

Blaise Mesa reports on criminal justice and social services for the Kansas News Service in Topeka. You can follow him on Twitter @Blaise_Mesa or email him at blaise@kcur.org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

Blaise Mesa is based in Topeka, where he covers the Legislature and state government for the Kansas City Beacon. He previously covered social services and criminal justice for the Kansas News Service.