Kansans share personal insights into soul-breaking experiences of foster children

Families urge greater scrutiny, oversight of state’s privatized program

By: - November 17, 2022 9:51 am
Meaghan and Blake Briscoe appear on video at committee hearing

Meaghan and Blake Briscoe shared with child welfare committee of the Kansas Legislature their experience of caring for a foster child from birth until forced to surrender the child at age 3 to the biological father by the state. (Kansas Reflector screen capture from Kansas Legislature YouTube channel)

TOPEKA — Kansas foster parents Meaghan and Blake Briscoe were asked to welcome into their home a newborn who ended up staying with them for three years.

They eagerly collaborated with the biological mother in an attempt to stabilize her life, but her parental rights were severed after 20 months. The father, who had a history of violent crime, abandoned the child. Cornerstones of Care, a foster care agency under contract with the Kansas Department for Children and Families, recommended the father’s rights be terminated.

Blake Briscoe told an legislative committee working on child welfare issues Wednesday that DCF inexplicably ordered during a closed-door meeting that Cornerstones of Care reverse its assessment so the child could be united with the biological father. He said micromanagement verging on conflict of interest between DCF and Cornerstones of Care should be remedied.

“They forced Cornerstones of Care to change their recommendation. In a 35-day period, to see the soul of a three-year-old broken is something I don’t wish on anyone. They just want to force a square peg into a round hole,” Blake Briscoe said.

The child was transferred to care of the biological father 19 months ago, but the Briscoes have been able to meet with the child a few times.

Blake Briscoe urged the Legislature to amend state law to allow foster parents to participate in conversations with DCF or contractors about placement of the 7,000 Kansas children in foster care. Parents proven to have abandoned a child should forfeit the right to raise that kid, he said.

In addition, he recommended the Legislature impose greater accountability on lawyers appointed by courts to serve as guardian ad litem for children in need of care. The attorney assigned to the infant who shared the Briscoe’s home never met the child, he said.

Louisburg Sen. Molly Baumgardner, a Republican on the child welfare committee, pivoted from Briscoe’s testimony to questioning Laura Howard, secretary of the Kansas Department for Children and Families, as to how DCF, a foster care contractor or the state’s court system could rationally declare, “Yes, this is the best interest for that 3-year-old child.”

Howard said she would look into details of issues raised by the Briscoe family.

“Relative connections are important, but they’re not the only thing,” the DCF secretary said. “It’s really important to look at every situation individually in terms of what that child’s best interests are.”

Laura Howard, secretary of the Kansas Department for Children and Families, . (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
Laura Howard, secretary of the Kansas Department for Children and Families, was grilled by Kansas legislators in wake of testimony from foster parents questioning DCF’s preference for placing children with a family member. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

 

‘Difficult to hear’

Rep. Susan Concannon, a Beloit Republican who chairs the legislative committee, said she appreciated willingness of individuals to share firsthand insight into complex situations involving children in foster care.

“I know some of it is very difficult to share and it’s also difficult to hear from out end of it,” Concannon said.

Two of her constituents, Tom and Susie Tuggle, outlined their effort to assist two children in temporary placement after their mother died of cancer. The Tuggles said DCF and foster care contractor Saint Francis Ministries were intent on placing the girls with a biological relative.

Susan Tuggle said the girls had different fathers and both men were interviewed about assuming parenting responsibilities. She said one of the men will be in prison until 2025 on convictions for engaging in pornography with the girls’ stepsisters. The other father had been jailed for making violent threats at a hospital and at residents of Concordia, she said.

Several weeks ago, Susan Tuggle said, the children were placed with a grandmother.

The better choice would have been the male friend of the deceased mother who had provided a safe home for the girls until DCF stepped in, said Tom Tuggle, a retired district court judge.

“We know that keeping family together is important, but we don’t think that should be the sole criteria and we’re concerned DCF relies unduly on keeping the family together or putting them with a relative who may not be the best choice,” he said.

 

75 holes in the wall

Deacon Godsey, pastor of Vintage Church in Lawrence, said his family accepted a 7-year-old nonverbal autistic child into their home in March 2020. His wife, Jill, had some experience with autistic children, but Godsey had no training on how to work with someone with exceptional behavioral challenges that included self-harm and physical harm to others.

He said the child he referred to as Jay should have received intensive services years before landing at their Lawrence home. The child, he said, had yet to be formally diagnosed with autism and hadn’t been qualified for a broad palette of professional intervention services. Some social workers involved with the child had little experience with this level of disability, he said.

“At one point,” Godsey said, “it became clear that some of them, despite good hearts and right motives, weren’t familiar with the Americans With Disabilities Act or how it related to Jay’s rights or care.”

Providers of intellectual and developmental disability services withdrew or declined to accept Jay as a client due to her physical aggression, Godsey said. During time she spent in their home, Godsey said, the child used the back of her head to punch about 75 holes in wallboard, smash a hole in the wall of a tiled shower and shattered the window of a vehicle.

“Despite a variety of medical interventions, ongoing applied behavioral analysis therapy, an incredibly supportive school environment and all the love we had, we simply weren’t equipped or trained to provide the kind of constant care required for Jay’s level of unpredictable aggression,” Godsey said.

After more than two years of fostering, he said Jay was assessed at Wichita and Paola facilities to determine if she qualified for placement at Parsons State Hospital.

“The question is, was this result for Jay’s long term care inevitable?” Godsey said.

 

Independent oversight

Kristine Fowler of Smith County said in testimony to the committee that Kansas would be well-served by investing real authority in an independent agency responsible for reviewing DCF cases to determine whether policies and procedures were followed by Saint Francis Ministries and other foster care contractors.

Fowler said trouble for her began in 2016 when her 16-year-old son experienced behavior issues, but miscommunication led law enforcement to false allegations of parental negligence.

“Over the next two years, we were ignored as parents, challenged on all our suggestions to assist our child and waited months to finally receive unsubstantiated findings from DCF,” Fowler said.

Eleven different case workers were involved in her family’s case, Fowler said. She spoke only twice with a case worker seeking information about her son. He eventually aged out of foster care, she said, but was sent to jail due to a methamphetamine addiction acquired while in foster care.

“It was daunting to try and find a way to save my children and file a complaint against DCF,” Fowler said. “The worldwide pandemic sounds like a vacation in comparison to dealing with DCF and Saint Francis.”

Gov. Laura Kelly established a Division of the Child Advocate to conduct inquiries into foster care cases. The ombudsman in that office is Kerrie Lonard, who is required to publicly release findings in an annual report. The first report is expected to be released in January.

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International. He has been recognized for investigative reporting on Kansas government and politics. He won the Kansas Press Association's Victor Murdock Award six times. The William Allen White Foundation honored him four times with its Burton Marvin News Enterprise Award. The Kansas City Press Club twice presented him its Journalist of the Year Award and more recently its Lifetime Achievement Award. He earned an agriculture degree at Kansas State University and grew up on a small dairy and beef cattle farm in Missouri. He is an amateur woodworker and drives Studebaker cars.

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