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Kansas lawmakers are rethinking whether relatives should get priority in adoption custody battles

A screenshot of Kansas Statehouse video shows John and Nicole DeHaven testifying in the Legislature last year.
This screenshot of Kansas Statehouse video shows John and Nicole DeHaven testifying in the Legislature last year.

A recent high-profile case has again highlighted the difficulty of choosing between maintaining biological kinship or keeping a child with the foster parents they already know.

TOPEKA, Kansas — Kansas lawmakers are rethinking a law that tips the scales toward relatives who want to take a child in an adoption dispute.

The current law giving relatives a priority can mean taking a young child away from the foster parents who raised them, even when those foster parents want to adopt.

Kansas lawmakers could change that. They worry that the current system may sometimes run counter to the child’s best interests and possibly traumatize children.

A House committee is considering striking language that tells courts to give preference to prospective adoptive parents with biological ties to a child. The new language would require that the child’s emotional bonds to people around them be a key consideration in adoption decisions.

A hearing on Wednesday drew no opposition, while two adoption experts testified in favor.

Kristalle Hedrick, vice president of Kansas programs at FosterAdopt Connect, called the bill “a step in the right direction.”

It’s a long-running debate, but a recent high-profile case again highlighted the difficulty of choosing between kinship and attachment to a foster family.

In 2019, John and Nicole DeHaven took in a foster child who was three days old. The couple had adopted before and spent years caring for the baby girl, to the point where that child knew them as mom and dad.

The DeHavens began the process of adopting her, but she had three siblings that the state wanted to keep together. Since the couple wasn’t able to adopt all four children, the state wanted to take the girl back and reunite her with her biological siblings — generally considered best practice.

However, she had spent little time with those siblings and had developed a strong bond with the DeHavens.

The secretary of the Department for Children and Families concluded the girl would thrive best with John and Nicole.

Wyandotte County Judge Jane Wilson disagreed and moved the 3-year-old to another adoptive home.

“You could hear her crying down the hall,” Nicole DeHaven told The Kansas City Star about the day they had to relinquish the child at a county office in late January. “They had to hold her back. She kept saying, ‘I want to go home. I want to go home.’”

The bill currently under consideration in the Kansas House says that a child’s best interests should guide any adoption decision. And it deletes a sentence from state law that instructs courts to give preference to would-be adopters who are related to the child biologically.

It instructs the secretary of DCF to give preference to maintaining the child’s “close and healthy attachments,” meaning emotional bonds to people.

And it instructs the secretary to consider the child’s foster family for the adoption if the child has spent more than half their life with one family, has lived with the same family for two years or if the secretary decides that staying with that family would serve the child’s best interest.

Rep. Susan Concannon, chair of the foster care committee, says the bill is over a year in the making. She said it wasn’t created specifically in response to the DeHaven case, but she believes it would have helped in that situation.

Concannon says judges increasingly prioritize kinship over emotional bonds.

Keeping children with their biological families is generally seen as better than exposing them to the trauma of foster care. A 2019 report from the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute said that kinship placements offer more stability for kids and save taxpayer money.

Another 2015 study published in the journal SAGE found that children placed with kin experienced “fewer behavioral problems and mental health disorders, better well-being, less placement disruption, fewer mental health services” and similar rates of reunifying with their birth parents.

Lawmakers and supporters of the proposed law acknowledge these facts, but they say each case is different and common sense needs to be applied.

Concannon, the chair of the foster care committee, said the goal of the legislation is not to chip away at the rights of kin, but to give judges more direction on how to rule in cases where a child has developed emotional bonds in their current placement.

“(Judges) feel like they are ruling according to (state) law, and we disagree on that,” she said.

Blaise Mesa reports on criminal justice and social services for the Kansas News Service in Topeka. You can follow him on Twitter @Blaise_Mesa or email him at blaise@kcur.org.

Celia Llopis-Jepsen is a reporter for the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @Celia_LJ.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

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.
I write about how the world is transforming around us, from topsoil loss and invasive species to climate change. My goal is to explain why these stories matter to Kansas, and to report on the farmers, ranchers, scientists and other engaged people working to make Kansas more resilient. Email me at celia@kcur.org.