The Department for Children and Families says it works to make sure gay, lesbian and transgender foster children end up in welcoming homes, but nothing in state law requires special consideration.
TOPEKA — Kansas has made no progress adding protections for gay, lesbian and transgender foster care children two years after preliminary guidance from the Department for Children and Families suggested doing so.
In 2019, DCF told the private child-placing agencies hired by the state to put children “in homes that respect their identities” after those organizations asked for guidance. But that recommendation never got finalized amid criticism from conservatives.
The state currently has no specific policies for LGBTQ placement, but it requires community-specific training, and DCF Secretary Laura Howard said she doesn’t think everything needs a law.
“We certainly expect professionals to act in the best interest of the child,” she said. “What we do in Kansas is very parallel to what many states do.”
Only 15 states, including Missouri, have state laws for LGBTQ indviduals, according to a policy tracking website from Lambda Legal and the child advocacy group Children’s Rights. Twenty-six additional states, including Colorado, have protections for sexual orientation. Even some of those states with gay rights laws on the books lack specific protections for foster children.
Christina Remlin, lead counsel at Children’s Rights, said training requirements in Kansas can be helpful, but states need laws in place to fully protect LGBTQ children who fall into state custody. She said LGTBQ youth in states without protections are more likely to get moved from one foster home to the next and struggle with their mental health.
“It’s important to note that (higher levels of anxiety and depression are) not an inherent feature of being an LGBTQ young person,” Remlin said. “But, instead, that is one of the collateral consequences of living in an environment in which there’s not 100% acceptance.”
Some child-placing agencies say they’ve taken their own initiative to make foster care more welcoming to gay and lesbian children.. KVC Kansas is part of the All Children All Families Campaign promoting inclusive policies in welfare agencies through its training and webinars.
Howard said Kansas does track which foster parents are accepting of LGBTQ children and try to match them with youth in that community, but without state law, child-placing agencies don’t have to ask potential foster parents about those beliefs.
Rep. Jo Ella Hoye, a Lenexa Democrat, said the state needs to put a guarantee in state law that the foster care will line up LGBTQ-friendly foster homes. Even if Gov. Laura Kelly’s administration promises to tend to the special needs of those children, she said the next governor would have no legal obligation to continue that.
“We need to be loud about our support for LGBTQ children so that they know they’re welcome here,” she said. “This is your home, and we want you here.”
Lori Ross, CEO of Foster Adopt Connect, a nonprofit that helps foster families in both Kansas and Missouri, said states should consider denying licenses to foster parents unless they accept LGBTQ children.
“I’m sure there are lots of people who would absolutely vehemently disagree with me, and I’m happy to have that conversation,” she said. “But I do think, as agencies, the least we can do is ask the question.”
Ross said the population of openly LGBTQ children continues to grow and potential foster parents will need to better understand the community.
Howard said DCF has become more welcoming to LGBTQ people over time. In the early 2010s, multiple LGBTQ couples allege they were denied placement because of their sexual identity.
“I feel good that we’re in a different place than the agency was,” she said. “That was not a very high bar to (set by saying) we’re going to be an agency that doesn’t practice discrimination.”
A majority of the lawmakers and foster care agencies the Kansas News Service spoke to for this story said they would support, or at least consider, adding more protections for LGBTQ foster children.
Democratic legislators said they want welcoming homes for LGBTQ children in foster care, but that they’ve made a higher priority of other legislation to protect against discrimination based on sexuality or gender identity.
The 2019 draft guidance from DCF never materialized after conservatives said it contradicted the 2018 Adoption Protection Act that allowed religious-based groups to deny foster care services if they conflicted with “sincerely held religious beliefs.”
Rep. Susan Ruiz, a Shawnee Democrat, said she and the other LGBT legislators tried to repeal the Adoption Protection Act, but there was never a hearing. Conservative Republicans control the Legislature. Other priorities for Ruiz are adding sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression to the list of the state’s protected classes and banning conversion therapy.
Widely discredited conversion therapy tries to change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity, and the United Nations has called for it to be banned globally because it is “inherently degrading and discriminatory.”
“Many of the legislators are just out of touch with the people of Kansas,” Ruiz said. “(Changes) go by very slowly.”
State Sen. Molly Baumgardner, a Louisburg Republican, said placing children in homes that accept them isn’t an issue that has come up in her seven years in office.
She said she would want to read any potential bill before supporting that legislation. Baumgardner isn’t as focused on that issue because addressing the reasons kids run away from care and ensuring schools are supporting foster children are some of her current priorities.
“That sense of inclusion and the support that they need, that has to be there from the get-go,” she said.
Aviva Okeson-Haberman contributed to this story.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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