Kansas Senate committee considers limiting number of children in foster homes

A Kansas Senate committee considered reforms to the state’s foster care system Thursday, including strict limits on the number of children in a foster home.

Senate Bill 315, introduced by Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, D-Wichita, would limit the number of foster children in a home to four and limit the total number of children — foster and biological — in a foster home to six.

“I commend those who open up their homes to those children. However, sometimes in trying to do the right thing, we have unintended consequences,” Faust-Goudeau told the Senate Judiciary Commitee.

The bill is a response to the case of Topeka City Councilman Jonathan Schumm. Schumm and his wife face charges of aggravated battery and endangering a child. The Schumms had 12 foster children and four biological children when they were charged and have since had a fifth biological child.

Faust-Goudeau didn’t refer to the Schumm case by name, instead calling it “the case we all know about.”

The senator said she had heard concerns from several constituents on the matter, including daycare providers who currently must abide by the four-child and six-child limits.

“I thought I needed to stand up and say something about this particular issue,” she said.

Kasey Rogg, deputy general counsel for the Kansas Department for Children and Families, said Faust-Goudeau’s limitations on foster homes are already the law. However, enforcement is done at DCF’s discretion.

“SB 316 removes the discretion the licensing division has,” Rogg said.

Though DCF didn’t take a position on the bill, Kathy Armstrong, DCF’s assistant director for legal services, said “it represents a very restrictive approach.” Armstrong urged senators to allow DCF the authority to handle its matters on a case-by-case basis.

“This bill does not allow for consideration of a home that may have the physical space and a family that may have the resources to care for a larger sibling group,” she said.

The only exception in the bill allows for a child to be placed in a foster care home for 30 days in emergency situations. Faust-Goudeau said that provision would allow for siblings to be placed in the same home in excess of the four-child and six-child limits.

Sen. David Haley, D-Kansas City, asked Rogg and Faust-Goudeau how many cases would be affected by the legislation. Neither had an answer.

“That is a good question and it’s a difficult question to answer,” Rogg said.

Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook, R-Shawnee, said she opposed the legislation.

“I appreciate the senator’s good intentions, but there are many, many families that have more than four children,” said Pilcher-Cook, one of six siblings.

“I think we have to be very careful about any kind of constraints on our agencies in that regard,” she added.

The committee took no action on the bill Thursday but heard testimony on other Senate legislation intended to improve the Kansas foster care system. Senate Bill 410 would create a pilot program for a unique foster care home. Parents enrolled in the program wouldn’t receive payments for the children in their care but, in return, would have more freedom over the education and care of the children.

“We have too many professional foster homes, making a business out of fostering children,” said Sen. Forrest Knox, R-Altoona, a supporter of the bill.

Parents in the pilot program would need to meet strict guidelines, such as seven years of marriage, no tobacco or alcohol use and active involvement in their community. Knox said foster parents are currently treated as babysitters with little authority over the child’s decisions, a strong deterrent for prospective foster parents.

“If they love their foster kids and try to do what is right for them and advocate for their foster kids, if they get too outspoken, the kids are taken from them,” he said.

Equality Kansas, an LGBT rights group, said it is neutral on the bill but concerned about the seven years of marriage requirement. Since gay and lesbian parents haven’t been legally able to wed in Kansas for seven years, Knox’s legislation would deny them the ability to take part in the pilot program, said Thomas Witt, the group’s executive director.