A Kansas district court judge is raising concerns about reports that state officials are considering policy changes that would prohibit couples who aren’t married from being foster parents.
Douglas County District Judge Peggy Carr Kittel raised the issue in a letter sent Wednesday to Tammy Thomas, director of the Overland Park office of the Kansas Department for Children and Families.
“I have great concern that implementation of any new policy of a marriage requirement such as the one rumored will further reduce the number of (foster) homes available at a time when the number of children in out of home placement is increasing,” Carr Kittel said in the letter.
Copies of the letter were sent to several other officials, including DCF Secretary Phyllis Gilmore.
In April, the state’s foster care system was caring for 6,507 children. That’s the most in state history, and approximately 700 more children than were in the system two years ago.
There are currently 6,492 children in foster care, according to Theresa Freed, a spokesperson for DCF.
In the letter, Carr Kittel said she is concerned a requirement that foster care couples be married would “result in expensive litigation” and divert money from an already underfunded foster care system.
“Such a policy change will also raise suspicion on any stated reasons for removals of foster children who are in previously approved homes, causing additional court hearings and adding uncertainty for children for whom we are mandated to achieve permanency,” Carr Kittel wrote.
Rep. Barbara Bollier, a Republican from Mission Hills, raised similar questions in an email she sent to Gilmore last week.
“I’ve had constituents contact me with concerns about the reports they’re hearing that DCF is going to discontinue allowing gay people to be foster or adoptive parents, and that other requirements — requirements of marriage — may be applied as well,” Bollier said in her email. “I want to know what’s factual and what is not.”
Freed said DCF is reviewing the “entire foster care licensing program” but emphasized that no decisions had been made about policy changes.
“We are in the early stages of conducting a long and thorough process of review and deliberation of the program,” Freed said.
Bollier and several people who work in the foster care system say they’ve been told the changes under consideration are in keeping with Gov. Sam Brownback’s ongoing efforts to use state policies to promote marriage.
The changes being discussed would reportedly not affect cohabitating couples who currently are licensed. But Bollier and others have been told unmarried couples would have to marry in order to renew their annual foster parent licenses.
Single men and single women would be allowed to be licensed foster parents with the understanding that other adults who are not relatives could not live in the household.
Lori Ross, executive director with the Midwest Foster Care and Adoption Association that serves Kansas and Missouri, said many foster parent couples are not married.
“Oh, gosh, there are a lot,” Ross said. “I mean, there’s nothing unusual about (foster) kids being appropriately placed with ‘Aunt Sally’ who’s living with a boyfriend.”
Kari Schmidt, a Wichita attorney who represents gay couples in adoption cases, said the reported policy change would be disruptive to the foster care system.
“Here we are, dealing with record numbers of kids in foster care, and DCF is thinking that requiring couples to get married and having fewer placement options will somehow make things better,” Schmidt said. “I think that’s greatly disingenuous.”
Schmidt said Brownback set the stage for the reported policy change with an executive order, which took effect July 1, that transferred the responsibility for licensing foster homes from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment to DCF.
“When I heard they were moving licensing authority out of KDHE and over to DCF, I knew exactly what it meant,” Schmidt said. “It meant exactly what we’re hearing about now.” Before the U.S. Supreme Court ruling last month that all couples have a right to marry, the change would have prevented same-sex couples from becoming foster parents because gay marriages were not legal in Kansas. Now, the change in DCF policy, if approved, would apply to all married couples, including those who are same-sex.
Kansas privatized most of its foster care services in 1996 after failing several court-ordered reviews. DCF now contracts with two nonprofit corporations — St. Francis Community Services of Salina and KVC Kansas of Olathe — for virtually all of its day-to-day services for children in foster care. Jenny Kutz, a spokesperson for KVC Kansas, said the organization was “unaware of any discussions” having to do with requiring foster parent couples to marry.
Officials at St. Francis have not responded to requests for comment.
KHI News Service reporter Jim McLean contributed to this story.
Dave Ranney is a reporter for KHI News Service in Topeka, a partner in the Heartland Health Monitor team.