Heartbroken grandparents make emotional appeals for Kansas foster care reform

Kathy Winters, facing, hugs Cindy Poe during a hearing on foster care Monday in which they described the personal agony of having their grandchildren placed in foster care by the state of Kansas. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
Kathy Winters, right, comforts Cindy Poe following Poe's testimony in September to the Kansas Legislature's Special Committee on Foster Care Oversight about the death of her grandchild within the foster care system. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Kathy Winters had responsibility for care of two of her grandchildren for 16 months, but eventually learned from caseworkers, child advocates and her attorney that adoption of the boys would be impossible unless she offered court testimony denouncing her daughter.

Winters, who is now retired from the Lenexa Police Department, said Monday she refused to play along with the people who advised her to offer false testimony against the boys’ mother.

“If I did not say bad things about my daughter in court, which I did not believe, I would lose my grandsons and not be allowed to adopt them,” Winters told a committee of the Kansas Legislature studying foster care. “I told them I could not lie under oath and under God.”

She said the boys were subsequently ordered into foster care. They were transferred to a home that within one month became the subject of a substantiated allegation of child abuse. Her supervised visits with the two children were limited to one hour each month.

“They would scream for me not to leave them,” Winters said. “I still have nightmares of this and cannot bear to hear a child cry.”

Winters, who co-founded Kansas Family Rights Coalition in 2008, said she had not seen her grandsons in 12 years.

A child’s death

Cindy Poe, who lived in Topeka when her three grandchildren were placed in foster care, shared another perspective with lawmakers. The maternal grandmother said her anxiety about being separated from the children was transformed into heartbreak in 2014 when one of them, 10-month-old Kadillak Marie, died after left in a sweltering vehicle by her foster parents in Wichita.

She alleged the couple caring for the girl were in the house eating pizza and smoking marijuana while the infant was perished in a car amid 90-degree heat.

Cindy Poe shared with a Kansas legislative committee with oversight of the foster care system her personal agony of having three grandchildren taken from her and the death of a granddaughter in foster care. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
Cindy Poe shared with a Kansas legislative committee with oversight of the foster care the agony of having three grandchildren removed from her after declining to make disparaging remarks about her daughter in court. One of those grandchildren, a girl, died when left unattended in a vehicle by her new foster family. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

“I want to know why this foster system is so poorly (managed),” she said. “That’s all it took, a child’s death, to get peoples’ attention. The foster parents got crap on jail time.”

The Legislature’s foster care oversight committee opened two days of meetings by inviting Kansans and organizations with an interest in foster care to share insight into the state’s privatized system responsible for more than 7,000 children. Their testimony came before comments by officials of the Kansas Department for Children and Families.

Kansas has a history of struggle regarding children in state custody. They are legally removed from homes due to neglect and abuse. The children know what it feels like to be rejected, traumatized and marginalized. In recent years, DCF has allowed foster children to be bounced among temporary homes and compelled to sleep in office buildings. DCF has been criticized for losing track of dozens of children in foster care and for death of children in the system.

Hysterical wailing

Jason Drahota, a former foster parent, told legislators that he and his wife welcomed a 2-year-old boy into their home in 2015. The child’s parental rights were terminated in 2016 and the boy “was dearly loved and he absolutely knew it,” Drahota said.

Jason Drahota outlined in testimony Monday to a committee of the Kansas Legislature the decision by a state agency to overturn a decision to allow a 5-year-old boy to remain with his family for purposes of adoption. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
Jason Drahota outlined in testimony to a committee of the Kansas Legislature the decision by a state agency to overturn a decision to allow a 5-year-old boy to remain with his family for purposes of adoption. Taking the boy from them after nearly three years was traumatizing. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Eventually, one of the child’s half-brothers turned 17 and sought custody. The initial decision in 2018 was to allow the boy to remain with the Drahotas and for the family to proceed with adoption.

On appeal to DCF, the boy was ordered into his step-brother’s custody.

“We asked for clarity on why this was reversed,” Drahota said. “Why was this in the child’s best interest now? We received absolutely no clarity.”

He said the 5-year-old boy became hysterical when informed of DCF’s decision. His wailing carried through office walls to the waiting room where his foster parents were seated.

“It was a sound that still plays in our head and hurts us to this day,” he said. “The little boy never got to see us again.”

Listening

Abbey Dohm, a foster parent for 10 years and volunteer director of foster care at City Life Church in Wichita, said Kansas children would be better served if state officials, private contractors and the legal system took seriously input from foster parents.

“Foster parents are with the children 24/7. We see the children at their best and at their worst,” Dohm said. “We interact with schools and churches and sports. Foster parents are advocates for the children in their home. They are family.”

She said Kansas’ system of foster care had been in crisis for a long time. The number of children in foster care vastly exceeds availability of foster homes, she said.

“In some cases,” she said, “it is in the best interest of children to return home to family. But there are also cases where this is not appropriate. Foster parents deserve and need a bigger voice within the system.”

Reform ideas

Gordon Hibbard, a Manhattan resident and former president of the Kansas 4-H Foundation, said he was drawn into the foster care issue after his son and daughter-in-law committed to become foster parents.

He said the Legislature and Gov. Laura Kelly lacked the “money or the will” to implement changes to address the state’s ill-equipped, underfunded system.

Jared Broyles, executive director of Foster the Cause, says he's leading an organization that recruits and trains Christians to serve as foster parents. He apologized for past indifference of churches to the state's foster care crisis. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
Jared Broyles, executive director of Foster the Cause, says he’s leading an organization based in Topeka that recruits and trains Christians to serve as foster parents. He apologized for past indifference of some churches to the state’s foster care crisis. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

He said legislators ought to remove all incentives, quotas or financial awards available to private agencies that could cloud decisions regarding what was best for a foster child. Kansas should appoint an ombudsman — someone outside DCF — to investigate violation or inconsistent application of policy on foster care. Compensation and training of caseworkers must be increased, he said.

“We need psychiatric residential treatment facilities to help build a framework for healing and restoration,” Hibbard said. “I have been told currently that we have more than 80 children on the wait list to receive these services.”

Jared Broyles, executive director of Foster the Cause, said the organization has focused in the Topeka area on recruiting, training and supporting new Christian foster and adoptive families through collaborations with churches.

“Let me say how very sorry I am that we as the church in Kansas have left the state to do the work alone for far too long. We were wrong. But we are here now,” Broyles said.