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In the Kansas foster care system, a grandmother wasn't allowed to adopt her own grandchild

Mindy Mathes said she followed the advice of caseworkers and the judge as she tried to adopt her granddaughter.
Dominick Williams
The Beacon Kansas City
Mindy Mathes said she followed the advice of caseworkers and the judge as she tried to adopt her granddaughter.

A Kansas judge went against a foster care agency’s recommendation when she placed a girl with a foster parent rather than her grandparents. Critics say the case represents chronic problems with Kansas' heavily privatized foster care system and lack of state oversight.

Mindy Mathes was thrilled when a foster agency picked her and her husband to adopt their granddaughter.

The girl had been weathering the chaos of the Kansas foster care system, living in multiple homes before finding people to call family.

At the Mathes home, she’d have stuffed animals — unicorns and a beloved Grinch — playdates, games of hide-and-seek and time with the grandparents who’d adored her since birth.

“She’s a part of me,” Mathes said.

Mathes was trying to adopt the girl, but she only briefly served as the primary caregiver for the child. That’s because, Mathes said, she was told not taking the child made it more likely the family could stay together.

So Mathes followed that advice from a caseworker thinking she was keeping her family intact. But that counsel appears to be a major reason the child went to another home.

A judge ruled in conflict with a foster care agency’s recommendation and delivered the girl to a foster parent who’d had time to form a stronger bond with the child than her grandparents. That, the judge reasoned, gave the child the best chance to thrive.

Mathes says she was cheated by Kansas foster care — a system that once denied her a visit with her granddaughter because “that would be like sending (the girl) to strangers,” court records say.

“I cut her umbilical cord. I helped to name her,” Mathes said. “You can’t tell me that I don’t have a bond with my own flesh-and-blood granddaughter.”

Critics of the foster system say the case represents chronic problems: private foster care agencies that don’t police themselves, a lack of oversight on judges and poor communication between caseworkers and families.

Foster care cases are never cut-and-dried. Almost by definition, caseworkers enter a family’s life when things have gone wrong and a child’s been neglected or abused or a parent’s been arrested. Those caseworkers are told to put a priority on keeping that family together — and keeping the children safe.

Finding a foster home with room for children — sometimes when siblings have different and specialized needs — regularly proves daunting. What’s more, they are supposed to help children fleeing a crisis warm up to strangers.

All the while, the child’s brain is developing and crucial emotional and physical development takes place.

Timeline of foster care case

Toys on the child’s bed in the Mathes’ home. Mindy Mathes will not be the primary caregiver for the girl.
Dominick Williams
The Beacon Kansas City
Toys on the child’s bed in the Mathes’ home. Mindy Mathes will not be the primary caregiver for the girl.

The girl in the Mathes case, now 4 years old, entered foster care when she was about 7 months old after Mathes called the Kansas Department for Children and Families (DCF) to report abuse.

Kansas runs one of the country’s most heavily privatized foster care systems. It relies on private nonprofit companies to find homes for foster kids to live in. The private contractor in this case was St. Francis Ministries. A St. Francis caseworker called Mathes asking if she wanted to take in the girl.

Mathes said no, for two reasons.

First, she was told she’d have to drive the child to every visit herself. Mathes lived in Tonganoxie and her daughter, the biological mother, lived in Newton — about a two-and-a-half-hour drive away. That meant Mathes would need to take a day off work every week to make the visit. That wasn’t possible.

Second, Mathes lived so far away that regular visits with the girl’s mother would be harder. Less frequent visits meant less relationship building between mother and child, and caseworkers said it was less likely the baby would return to her mother. So Mathes let the child go to a foster home nearby, thinking she was helping the family stay together.

Mathes told the agency she wanted to adopt the girl if the baby couldn’t be returned to mom.

That granddaughter lived with two foster families.

The girl arrived at the first foster home in June 2020. She spent eight months at that home before she was moved to her second foster family — the home of the child’s aunt, her father’s sister. That family has now adopted her.

The girl was 15 months old when she was placed with her aunt’s family in February 2021. Mathes said she wasn’t told that the child was moved until six months after it happened. That frustrated her. She could tell her daughter was struggling with her case plan goals and the odds of the child returning to her biological mother were dwindling.

Court transcripts suggest that Mathes wasn’t trying to be involved in the child’s life in the beginning portion of the case, and that she didn’t ask the child’s aunt, and foster parent, for visits. She also didn’t show up to court hearings when given notice.

Mathes said that her visits were canceled because of COVID restrictions and that she never worked directly with a caseworker. Mathes had FaceTime visits, but they only happened when her daughter called her from her visits with the child. If a visit was canceled, she said, the Matheses would lose a chance to talk with their granddaughter.

Mathes began calling St. Francis and tried to talk with a caseworker. Mathes suspects COVID restrictions kept staff out of the office as well, because she said she called repeatedly and nobody answered. One day she got lucky and someone picked up.

In the meantime, the girl continued to live with her aunt. (She remains with the aunt.) Court records say the aunt and child met just weeks before placement.

“We bonded right away,” the paternal aunt said in court transcripts. “She started relying on me, a safe person, a person she would come to when she needed something.”

The case slowly worked its way out from there with two families — Mathes and her husband, and the aunt — interested in adoption.

Terminating parental rights is a slow process on purpose. Parents get time to complete their case plan goals. If they aren’t succeeding, caseworkers try to help them before ending parental rights. Adoptions aren’t finalized until those rights are surrendered by the parents or cut off by a judge.

Meanwhile, caseworkers perform background checks, inspect homes the child would live in and schedule visits. Every interaction with the child — how she plays, how a parent disciplines her and more — gets scrutinized.

The process with the girl culminated in something called the “best-interest staffing meeting.” Ten people showed up to that meeting, but three people decided which family gets the child. The first vote ended 2-1, with case experts originally picking the foster family over Mathes.

Because the vote wasn’t unanimous, the decision was left to another St. Francis caseworker who chose Mathes.

That decision was relayed to the judge, who made her ruling in January 2023. The adoption was recently finalized.

Pros and cons for each family

Mindy Mathes in her living room.
Dominick Williams
The Beacon Kansas City
Mindy Mathes in her living room.

Mathes was recommended by foster officials as the adoptive family, but the decision wasn’t simple.

The aunt had been fostering the child for years, a major plus. Foster officials said the aunt was caring, loving and someone who could raise the child. Caseworkers said the girl was “happy, bubbly and curious” around her.

But financial concerns lingered. The foster parent, the child’s aunt, budgeted just $30 a week for food, court records said. She had $130 a month for food, car expenses, clothing and any other unscheduled bills.

On top of that, court records show, she was pregnant and didn’t tell caseworkers because she didn’t think it was important to the case. Court records indicate she also neglected to tell St. Francis that she was seeing someone romantically and that that person had been around the grandchild without a background check.

Mathes was the child’s grandmother, a benefit on her end, and placing the girl with her keeps family together.

Caseworkers did have some concerns about Mathes’ past.

Mathes’ daughter reported that she was a victim of sexual abuse as a child, before her mother took over custody from her grandparents. Caseworkers said in court records that Mathes didn’t adequately respond to her daughter’s sexual assault reports. Mathes denies that and said she got her daughter therapy when she learned of what happened.

The main issue that concerned the judge was the bond between Mathes and the child. St. Francis staff said the child was clearly bonded to both families.

But Mathes was not around the child as much, which she says is because her repeated calls were ignored.

Mathes said it was St. Francis that canceled her visits and it was an agency caseworker who recommended she give the child over to a foster family. But now that separation was held against her. Mathes was seeing the child five days a week at one point, but those visits were reduced.

“We did everything that the judge asked of us. We did everything that St. Francis asked of us,” she said. “And now we’re where we are.”

Michelle Brown, a lawyer for St. Francis during the case, said in court transcripts: “In hindsight, there was probably a number of things St. Francis should have been done (for) the grandparents.”

Brown, who retired from prosecution work after the case, told The Beacon recently that her former agency needed to make the consequences of decisions clearer. Letting the child live with a foster family makes it harder for someone to get that kid back. A caseworker should have made it clearer to Mathes that not taking the girl in at the start could hurt her later, Brown said.

“I know it’s awkward to step up and want to be a foster parent for a child when that may make their relative or their child or biological child unhappy,” Brown said. “But it’s important to do that right off the bat and not wait.”

What’s unusual about the judge’s adoption ruling

Even though Brown said her agency could have done things differently, St. Francis recommended that the child live with Mathes. The foster parent, the child’s aunt, unsuccessfully appealed the agency’s recommendation. But judges make the final ruling on placements and the case went to Judge Marilyn Wilder, the chief judge of the 9th Judicial District.

“I may be about to make legal history, but I’m doing what I believe is in (the child’s) best interest,” she said when making her decision.

Wilder said the long-term implications of removing the girl from the foster family were too risky. Placing the girl with Mathes would mean removing her from “the only permanent and consistent attachment figure she’s had since she was removed from her biological mother.”

Wilder’s ruling directly contradicted the recommendations of both St. Francis and DCF. The state foster care agency tried unsuccessfully to appeal her decision.

Wilder’s ruling was not entirely historic. The Beacon interviewed two lawyers familiar with these types of cases who said decisions like this do happen — just not often.

“We have 105 counties. We don’t all stay in contact with each other. But I have never heard of this happening,” said Brown, the former St. Francis attorney, who has almost 20 years of experience in these cases. “There’s no specific statute that the judge relied upon (for her decision).”

A best-interest staffing decision can be appealed, but lawyers say the main way one can be appealed is if the agency didn’t do its job properly.

For example, caseworkers need to do home studies to allow visits to happen. If a family’s home isn’t inspected by caseworkers, a child isn’t allowed to visit that home. Delaying visits, like in the Mathes case, can be a reason someone isn’t selected as the adoptive family.

If a foster care agency conducts a home study for one family in one day but waits six months to do a home study for another family, a court could find that unreasonable. That best-interest staffing decision could then be appealed.

The judge said St. Francis did its job properly, but she threw out its decision anyway.

Grandmother says Kansas foster care lacks oversight

Mathes said Kansas foster care is a system without oversight.

“They absolutely have been able to run loose,” she said. “There’s a lot of lack of supervision by the supervisors of the people who are making the decisions.”

A screenshot of a report from the Kansas Division of the Child Advocate.
A screenshot of a report from the Kansas Division of the Child Advocate.

Neither St. Francis nor the judge was allowed to comment on the case.

Kansas has multiple nonprofit companies that run its foster care system, and each agency has a complaint process with appeals. But questions about oversight in the system remain.

State lawmakers created an independent agency in 2021 to monitor foster care after complaints that the system couldn’t police itself. That oversight agency recently released a report on best-interest staffing meetings, the type of meeting that chose Mathes as the adoptive family.

The child advocate report found that there are things working well, but that children lack voice in those meetings, that decisions take too long or that families don’t always know they can appeal the decisions.

Overall, the child advocate received 214 formal complaints that involved 335 children in 2023. Of those, 63 complaints were supported, 22 complaints were unsupported but had recommendations, and 54 cases were unsupported without recommendations.

Forty percent of complaints the agency received — 87 in total — centered on staff and agency conduct. Of that, 27 were related to poor case management and 22 were communication issues.

In addition to yearly complaints, the state’s foster care system is settling a lawsuit that says the state mismanaged cases that led to placement instability and poor access to mental health care.

St. Francis’ complaint process tells a family how a decision was made and who to contact about appealing any complaint. The agency compiles that information and tracks the data to improve the system in the future.

But some foster parents say the system will never police itself.

Other high-profile cases have similar outcomes. AJ Iverson died while with St. Francis. AJ’s family said it filed complaints that were all eventually dismissed — including one complaint about St. Francis staff billing the family for showing up to AJ’s funeral.

The DeHaven family appealed to state lawmakers to complain when they were about to lose a 3-year-old child whom they had raised since that child was 3 days old. The family also said it tried to address things with Cornerstones of Care, but in the end, the DeHavens’ child was taken away by a judge and put with another family.

A 2023 investigation by The Kansas City Star found that a foster care agency ignored the psychological needs of a child until it was so severe the boy ran onto a highway to try and get run over. He later stabbed himself with scissors.

That article detailed a dozen complaints that some say are a result of “allowing the contract agencies to just run rampant.” However, those were documented complaints that led to compliance action plans and one fine.

Some families caught up in the foster system have praise for one agency.

Multiple parents and advocates have complimented the Division of the Child Advocate, the state’s independent oversight agency. Mathes contacted the agency for help and she said the agency confirmed her complaint. The Division of the Child Advocate couldn’t confirm that, however.

The division staff was caring, Mathes said, and made her feel heard. But the agency lacks the power to give orders to foster care agencies — it can only offer recommendations.

Mindy Mathes in her backyard.
Dominick Williams
The Beacon Kansas City
Mindy Mathes in her backyard.

Kansas Statehouse mulls legislative reform

It can be tricky to hold certain foster care staff accountable. The private agencies that employ them can lose their contracts, but individual mistakes might not lead to public disciplinary action.

Caseworkers are not state employees, so the state’s foster care agency can’t fire anyone, can’t suspend anyone and can’t even write someone up. And the Legislature has limited authority over the judicial system.

Rep. Susan Concannon, a Beloit Republican who chairs a House foster care committee, said lawmakers are trying to find solutions, but concerns exist about prolonged foster care cases.

“We’re still doing some work on it and trying to address some concerns,” she said.

Appeals are limited because the longer cases drag on, the longer the child doesn’t know who their mom or dad will be.

Concannon said that the Legislature wants to enshrine the Division of the Child Advocate into state law and that constituents can complain directly to lawmakers about foster care blunders.

The judiciary is also planning an upcoming foster care seminar to educate judges, and it’s piloting Family Treatment Courts, a type of court that increases the likelihood that families get back together.

Concannon said she wants families to know lawmakers hear their concerns and are doing what they can to find solutions.

Those solutions didn’t come in time for Mathes, though.

Mindy Mathes case is final

In her ruling, Wilder noted that the foster mother was willing to let Mathes see her granddaughter. Mathes is worried that the legal battle has scarred their relationship. And the occasional weekend visit is a poor consolation prize.

Molly Mathes, the biological mother, said she preferred her child go to Mindy. She has a better relationship with Mindy, which means more chances to see the girl after she lost her parental rights.

Molly worries she won’t see her daughter much if the child is adopted by the girl’s aunt once going to the other home.

Mindy Mathes struggles to believe the case has come to this. If she could change anything, she never would have reported abuse to DCF.

“If we knew then what we know now, we never would have called anybody for help,” she said. “We would have just drove down and got our grandbaby.”

This story was originally published by The Beacon Kansas City, a fellow member of the KC Media Collective.

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.
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