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Oct. 3, 2013
TOPEKA State officials say they are investigating a faith-based group’s role in some child welfare cases after a Wichita legislator raised concerns that the organization might be undercutting efforts to reunite some of the children with their parents.
“The Kansas Department for Children and Families has more than 6,000 children in its care,” Theresa Freed, a spokesperson for the agency wrote in an email to KHI News Service. “The safety and security of each child is our number one priority. When concerns of their welfare are brought to our attention, we take those concerns seriously. DCF has been made aware of accusations regarding FaithBuilders. We are looking into the matter at this time.”
Freed said, “no time estimate is available for when our research will be complete.”
FaithBuilders is a nonprofit organization with about 30 foster homes licensed by the state in and around Wichita.
According to the group’s website, its mission is “…to be the hands and feet of Jesus to children and families in crisis here in our community. Our goal is to honor God’s desire that we serve the least of these.”
Andrea Dixon, the founder and director, said FaithBuilders' efforts were backed by more than 30 Wichita-area churches.
She said she was aware of the agency inquiry, which apparently began after State Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, a Wichita Democrat, relayed complaints from constituents and her own concerns to DCF officials.
Dixon declined to say how many children were in FaithBuilders’ foster homes or to respond to the allegations.
“I work hard to serve kids and families all day long and I go to bed at night with peace, knowing that I did the best I could for that day. And I move on,” she said.
Faust-Goudeau said she began receiving complaints in August that Dixon was encouraging at-risk families to circumvent the state’s foster care system by putting their children directly into FaithBuilders’ homes before or without a judge’s order.
Generally, when children are taken by the state and ordered into foster homes as the result of parental abuse or neglect, court-appointed attorneys represent them in a confidential hearing. The parents also are allowed legal representation in the custody cases. A judge then decides where to place the child based on evidence presented during the hearing.
Faust-Goudeau said she had three constituents tell her that after they had informally agreed to let FaithBuilders temporarily care for their children due to family crises, Dixon soon urged them to sign away their parental rights so FaithBuilders’ families could adopt the children.
Parents who declined, she said, were told their children likely would end up in state custody anyway with slim chances of being returned.
The state’s policy is to promote the return of foster children to their parents whenever that is considered possible and appropriate for the child’s well being.
Faust-Goudeau said officials at the DCF regional office in Wichita appear to have the endorsed FaithBuilders’ methods, preferring that children, most of them living in poverty, be adopted by well-to-do FaithBuilders’ familes rather than rejoined with their biological families.
“I want to know how much power these people have,” Faust-Goudeau said of FaithBuilders. “And I want to know who gave them that power.”
She said a DCF official from the agency’s Topeka headquarters notified her earlier this week that the situation was being investigated.
Sen. Forrest Knox, an Altoona Republican who has said he plans to introduce foster care reform legislation for the 2014 legislative session, seconded Faust-Goudeau’s concerns.
“I don’t like that people might feel like they’re being forced to sign over their rights to their children,” he said. “It sounds like there ought to be some formal procedures for helping families and for helping them get their kids back, because if those kids aren’t in state custody and the parents can’t get them back, I call that kidnapping.”
Knox and his wife, Renee, have nine biological children, two of whom still live at home. The couple adopted four brothers — then ages 5, 7, 8 and 13 — two years ago after having cared for them for two years as foster parents.
In keeping with state and federal laws, DCF is charged with investigating reports of child abuse and neglect and with sharing its findings with local prosecutors. In cases in which a judge decides to place a child in foster care, DCF is responsible for the actual placement.
The laws are meant to protect parents’ rights while also ensuring safe environments for children to grow up in.
In Kansas, most foster care services were privatized in 1996 after the then-Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services failed to settle a lawsuit that accused the state of not doing enough to protect foster children.
DCF currently has foster care contracts with two nonprofit, nongovernmental agencies: St. Francis Community Services, based in Salina, and KVC Behavioral Healthcare, which is headquartered in Olathe.
St. Francis and KVC, in turn, have subcontracts with several organizations that have affiliated foster homes.
In Wichita, FaithBuilders homes are affiliated with DCCCA, a Lawrence-based organization that until July had administered a statewide contract for family preservation services. That contract has since been taken over by St. Francis.
Colleen Pederson, contracts administrator at DCCCA, said Dixon is well known for her ability to rally quick and substantial support for low-income families in crisis.
“She has an extensive system for getting whatever a family needs, whether it’s housing, money for utilities, diapers, cribs — whatever,” she said. “She knows lots and lots of people.”
But some Wichita-area social workers said they were troubled by what they considered a too cozy relationship between Dixon at FaithBuilders and top officials in the DCF Wichita office.
“They are a very Christian-based group. They try very hard to help families and there’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that their hearts are in the right place,” said Connie Mayes, a 20-year social worker who supervised the Wichita DCF office’s foster care liaison operations until she retired in May.
“But there have been concerns about them in regards to boundaries — it’s enabling versus accountability,” she said. “By that I mean that they put so much into these families, but, at the same time, they don’t hold them accountable when it comes to making positive changes. Once they begin working with a family, the perception is that that family belongs to FaithBuilders and that FaithBuilders will be the primary voice for that family.”
Mayes said Dixon had an unusually close working relationship with Diane Bidwell, who runs the DCF office in Wichita. She said Bidwell often took a direct role in decisions regarding FaithBuilders’ homes in instances that typically would be left to lower ranking social workers and their supervisors.
In separate interviews last month, four licensed social workers in Wichita told KHI News Service that they suspected Bidwell had inappropriately shared confidential information with Dixon and that she allowed Dixon to overrule case workers’ recommendations on where children should be placed and whether children in foster care could return home.
Bidwell did not respond to a request for an interview and DCF officials would not discuss details of their investigation, so it remains unclear if the social workers’ specific concerns are being looked into by the agency.
The social workers also said they believed there were cases in which DCF, at Faithbuilders’ behest, had not done enough to place children with other family members willing to care for a relative’s child.
Each of the four social workers asked for anonymity, saying they feared DCF reprisal.
There need to be some clear parameters on what their role is,” Mayes, the former DCF supervisor, said. “No one has a problem with their being faith-based or with FaithBuilders being a church-run organization. The problem begins when they start running a case and when DCF lets them.
“I know these are well-meaning people,” she said. “But they’re not child welfare professionals, and the decisions that are being made in these cases need to be made by professionals who are responsible to a code of ethics and policy.”
Another allegation raised is that DCF officials in Wichita were steering children ordered into state custody to FaithBuilders’ foster homes with the goal of seeing them adopted rather than reunited with their families.
Many, if not most of the children placed in FaithBuilders homes, according to the social workers and others, were black, many of them infants. And most of the foster parents were white.
“What really upsets me about this is that it appears that DCF and FaithBuilders are picking on people who are the most vulnerable, people who have no one who’ll fight for them,” said Mary Dean, a social justice advocate in Wichita, who is black.
“We keep being told these people are doing God’s work, but I think that’s a misplaced concept,” Dean said. “I don’t think God wants these families separated.”
Dean communicated her concerns to DCF Protection and Prevention Services Director Teresa McQuin in phone calls, then following up with a lengthy Sept. 3 letter.
McQuin is head of the Division of Prevention and Protective Services at the DCF central office in Topeka.
Lynette Herrman, a former Sedgwick County prosecutor who now represents parents and foster parents in custody cases in juvenile court, said the issues raised by the social workers warranted thorough investigation.
“Child welfare investigations are closed,” Herrman said. “That’s federal law. If DCF is talking about these cases to anybody but law enforcement, that’s a lawsuit waiting to happen.”
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