Kansas lawmakers have struggled since 2015 on whether to investigate alleged discrimination against same-sex couples in the state’s foster care and adoption system.
Now some think they’ve hit on an answer: Ask people working in the foster care system if they think the issue needs a deeper look.
Rep. Jarrod Ousley, a Merriam Democrat, has asked the Legislative Post Audit Division to conduct a survey about potential bias against same-sex couples in child placement decisions.
The survey Ousley has requested would ask lawyers appointed to represent children’s interests in child welfare cases if they have seen discriminatory treatment in a case and whether they believe the Legislature should investigate the issue.
Rep. John Barker, an Abilene Republican and chairman of the Legislative Post Audit Committee, gave Ousley’s request preliminary approval, according to an email from audit staff. The survey and limited-scope audit would require an estimated 100 staff hours, so it would be automatically approved at the next Legislative Post Audit Committee meeting unless the other committee members ask for a vote.
Barker said he doesn’t know if same-sex couples have been treated unfairly in child placement cases, but he said a survey could settle the question or show lawmakers they need more information.
“I thought, ‘Well, that’s an interesting question and I don’t know the answer to it,’ and that’s why we have audits,” he said.
If the survey finds that lawyers working on child welfare cases think a larger audit is worthwhile, their views might resonate with committee members, Ousley said.
“If they come back and say, ‘Yes, it’s a good idea,’ maybe it would be a little more persuasive than a lawmaker or two asking for it,” he said.
Ousley and other members of the House Children and Seniors Committee forwarded a bill this session to create a task force that will recommend improvements to the foster care system. The House approved the bill but it awaits Senate action.
The Kansas Department for Children and Families oversees the foster care system, and two contractors operate it. In recent years, record numbers of children have entered the state’s foster care system, raising concerns among social service advocates and some legislators.
In April 2016, DCF Secretary Phyllis Gilmore submitted a letter to the post audit committee stating that the department and its two foster care contractors have no formal policies related to same-sex couples. She said DCF reviewed its training materials, internal memos and other policy documents but found no information about sexual orientation.
Kasey Rogg, deputy general counsel for DCF, told a legislative Special Committee on Foster Care Adequacy in November 2016 that the department doesn’t discriminate against same-sex couples.
“There is no policy that takes into account those issues. It’s not an issue,” he said.
The issue came up in late 2015 when lawmakers set the questions for a three-part audit of the foster care system, which post audit staff recently finished.
Rep. Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat, had asked that a question about potential discrimination against same-sex couples be included, but other members of the Legislative Post Audit committee elected not to pursue it.
Ward referenced the case of a baby who was being raised by a lesbian couple in Wichita but then was placed with Jonathan and Allison Schumm, a Topeka couple raising some of her siblings. The Schumms later were charged with abusing another child in their home but reached a diversion agreement, according to the Topeka Capital-Journal.
A 2013 court ruling in Johnson County also alleged DCF had conducted a “witch hunt” against a lesbian couple seeking to adopt a child while allowing heterosexual parents with more serious past offenses to adopt.
Meg Wingerter is a reporter for KMUW’s Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio and KCUR covering health, education and politics in Kansas. You can reach her on Twitter @MegWingerter.