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Kansas Panel Urges Adding ‘Family Structure’ To Discussion In Foster Care Placements

Dave Ranney
Heartland Health Monitor

A special legislative committee formed to study the state’s foster care system encouraged agencies to consider family structure in placing a child, but declined to support an audit of the Kansas Department for Children and Families and its two foster care contractors during a Monday meeting.

Some legislators have called for study of the state’s foster care system after a boy was beaten to death while placed with his father and a baby died when her foster parents accidentally left her in a hot car while they smoked marijuana.

Abuse allegations against Topeka city councilman Jonathan Schumm, who has 12 foster or adopted children in addition to five biological children, added fuel to the discussion. A lesbian couple alleged the state placed a baby they had fostered with the Schumms out of bias toward their sexual orientation.

The committee, made up of three senators and four representatives, met for less than an hour Monday afternoon. During that time, it supported motions on family structure and a request that the Legislature form another committee on foster care, but set aside discussions on supporting an audit and including trauma to a child in foster care decisions.

Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook, a Republican from Shawnee, said family structure should be a “high priority” when foster care contractors determine the child’s best interest in a foster home placement.

“If there are two like families, they’re alike in everything else but there’s evidence one family structure would be better for that child, that should be considered,” she said.

Pilcher-Cook declined after the meeting to specify if she was concerned about same-sex couples, single-parent homes or other factors.

“I think ‘family structure’ speaks for itself,” she said.

Sen. Laura Kelly, a Democrat from Topeka, said the motion struck her as a “blatant attempt to discriminate against same-sex couples.” Pilcher-Cook countered that if a child had a parent who was in a same-sex relationship, the child’s caseworker might determine it was in the child’s best interest to be placed in a family with the same structure.

Rep. Annie Tietze, a Democrat from Topeka, also argued that the wording was too vague and said the state doesn’t have enough foster homes to meet children’s needs.

“It would be a mistake for this committee to take any action that would discourage people from being foster parents,” she said.

Committee Chairman Sen. Forrest Knox, a Republican from Altoona, suggested the committee amend the motion to emphasize that contractors consider evidence from peer-reviewed academic studies. It passed with five votes, with Tietze in opposition and Kelly abstaining.

The committee also voted unanimously to ask House and Senate leadership to form a foster care oversight committee — similar to one created to oversee the three contractors administering KanCare, the state’s Medicaid program — or some other form of standing committee.

Knox noted that legislators already had asked leadership to form a joint committee to take a deeper look into the foster care system.

“We need to do something more than just our one-day or one-hour committee (meetings),” he said.

Kelly made a motion to encourage the Legislative Post Audit Committee to approve an audit of DCF and the foster care contractors. Pilcher-Cook said the committee didn’t have enough information to vote, and Kelly withdrew the motion after the committee had discussed it for several minutes.

Megan Hart is a reporter for KHI News Service in Topeka, a partner in the Heartland Health Monitor team. You can reach her on Twitter @meganhartMC

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