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Kansas Lawmakers Worried New Foster Care Contracts Open The Door To Discrimination

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Kansas News Service
The Department for Children and Families is switching to a grant system for child welfare. Some lawmakers are worried making agencies grantees instead of contractors opens the door to discrimination.

A restructuring of how Kansas hires agencies to manage foster care and adoptions could allow widespread exclusion of placements with gay parents — a revelation Monday that prompted objections from some lawmakers.

The state child welfare agency’s responses to members of the Child Welfare System Task Force left legislators and others who work in child welfare confused. Many were concerned that state foster care dollars could be directed to agencies permitted to turn more parents away on religious grounds. 

The Adoption Protection Act passed this spring allows faith-based adoption and foster care agencies to turn away prospective parents who don’t mesh with the agency’s sincerely held religious beliefs. That includes same-sex couples, single parents or parents with different religious backgrounds.

But those religious exceptions don’t apply to case management contractors, the overarching agencies that contract directly with the state Department for Children and Families. Those agencies, currently KVC Kansas and St. Francis Community Services, must serve all families referred to them.

Those contracts expire next year. They’ll be replaced by a grant system that DCF has said will allow for more direct oversight.

Part of that oversight is contracting directly with child placement agencies, rather than having the case management contractors that work with DCF subcontract with those agencies, DCF Secretary Gina Meier-Hummel told lawmakers on Monday.

Thomas Witt, executive director of the LGBT advocacy group Equality Kansas, issued a statement calling promises of non-discriminatory treatment from Gov. Jeff Colyer’s administration “hollow” in light of what lawmakers learned Monday. 

“Today’s revelation that DCF will contract directly with religious organizations that refuse to serve taxpaying LGBT families proves the Colyer administration was never serious about eliminating discrimination,” Witt said.

DCF spokeswoman Taylor Forrest said in an email that the decision to move to a grant structure and contract directly with child placing agencies has been in the works since 2014. The Adoption Protection Act was signed into law this year.

“Both of these decisions were made after receiving vital feedback from the Child Welfare System Task Force, the public and stakeholders, and carefully evaluating the current issues within the Kansas foster care system,” Forrest said.

Meier-Hummel told lawmakers that child placement agencies with sincerely held religious beliefs can claim a religious exemption under the Adoption Protection Act, but agencies serving as case management contractors cannot.

Forrest also said that “grantees will have the same responsibilities as the case management contractors in the statute.” But she did not respond late Monday to whether that applied to the religious belief exception in the law.

Sen. Laura Kelly raised concerns about the new child welfare grant system at a meeting of the Child Welfare System Task Force. She said she’d gotten the impression the religious adoption law would be limited to a few child placement agencies with long-standing and sincerely held religious beliefs.

“This looks like it might open the door to allow others to claim that, and discriminate,” she said.

The law says religious protections “shall not apply to any entity while such entity has a contract with the Department for Children and Families as a case management contractor.”

But members of the Office of the Revisor of Statutes, which helps lawmakers draft and interpret bills, told lawmakers Monday they weren’t sure whether grantees could use the religious exemptions. One assistant revisor told lawmakers that “case management contractor” isn’t defined within the Adoption Protection Act. But the grant application lists contractual obligations, so the revisor said it could be interpreted that grantees are contractors and can’t use the religious exemption.

But, he said, final word might come down to legislation or litigation -- either lawmakers clarifying with another new law, or agencies being taken to court.

“There’s a lot of questions that just haven’t been answered,” said Sen. Vicki Schmidt, chair of the task force.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misidentified the agency that advised lawmakers on the language of the law. It was the Office of the Revisor of Statutes.

Madeline Fox is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach her on Twitter @maddycfox.

 Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to the original post.

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