Judge says Kansas erred, Johnson County girl will be removed from only home she’s known

In a strong rebuke of the leader of Kansas’ child welfare agency, a Wyandotte County judge ruled Friday that a 3-year-old girl should be placed in an adoptive home — not with the Gardner family where she’s lived her whole life.

In her ruling, District Court Judge Jane A. Wilson blasted the leader of the Kansas Department for Children and Families for changing course last year and recommending that the girl stay in the care of Nicole and John DeHaven. The couple has raised the girl in foster care since she was three days old.

Wilson ordered that the little girl be moved from the DeHavens’ home and placed with a family in Manhattan, Kansas, where the girl’s three biological siblings are living. The judge also consented to the adoption of the girl by the Manhattan family.

“Secretary Howard testified that she believed that this case qualified as an ‘extreme circumstance,’ which justified her last-minute involvement and her unilateral decision to overturn the decision that had been made pursuant to policy,” Wilson wrote in her two-page ruling. “Unfortunately, for families involved in foster care, this is hardly an extreme circumstance in this system.

“... Making such a vital decision in a child’s life without having sufficient information is, in the opinion of this Court, a clear failure to act in the best interest of the child.”

Nicole DeHaven said Friday evening that she and her husband were in shock after Wilson’s ruling.

“We don’t know if they’re going to pick her up tonight,” she said, her voice breaking. “Will they pick her up this weekend? I can’t even explain it to her. …

“The decision is careless. It’s not in the best interest of the child.”

Mike Deines, a DCF spokesman, said Friday evening that he could not comment on the ruling or the DeHaven case.

John and Nicole DeHaven
John and Nicole DeHaven

For many months, the DeHavens had been at the center of an emotional battle with the state after being told they would not be able to adopt their foster daughter. Instead, Cornerstones of Care, one of four contractors that handle foster care in Kansas, planned to place her in an adoptive home in Manhattan with three biological siblings.

The couple told their story to lawmakers who then held a special meeting in October of the Joint Committee on Child Welfare Oversight in Topeka. Sen. Molly Baumgardner, a Louisburg Republican, has been the most vocal supporter of the couple and their foster daughter and said her reaction to Friday’s ruling was “beyond disappointment.”

“The court actually turned a blind eye to what is in the best interest of this young child,” Baumgardner said Friday evening. “This is an action taken by a court that by all accounts will be physically and emotionally destructive to the future development of this 3-year-old Kansas girl.”

Cornerstones has told The Star it also cannot comment on a specific case but provided general information on the policy aimed at keeping siblings together.

Through a spokesman, Cornerstones has said its recommendations to keep siblings together “are based on multiple research studies and evidence that siblings raised together experience better long-term, healthy outcomes.”

But Baumgardner and others asked why, in this case, that wasn’t done sooner, before the little girl had bonded with the family.

The three siblings were removed from their mother’s care several months before the little girl was born and the four have spent limited time together as a group.

On Halloween — the third anniversary of when the DeHavens first brought the child home when she was three days old — Howard told the couple that they’d be able to adopt their foster daughter.

The couple knew the case would still have to go through court and a judge would have to sign off before the adoption would be final. At that point, though, it appeared to be a formality because Howard had said the little girl should stay in Gardner with the DeHavens and their adoptive son, who is just one month younger than his foster sister. The two children have bonded as siblings.

Several days later, however, the couple were told that the Manhattan family had hired an attorney and had filed a motion in court to still adopt the little girl.

Before Friday, the DeHavens hoped that their family would forever stay together. The little girl has been asking if she and her brother could share a room and they could turn hers into a playroom. She’s already talking about next Halloween.

Nicole DeHaven said when her husband told her the news Friday, she went to pick the two kids up from daycare.

“I don’t want to be away from them,” she said, starting to cry. “I tried not to be upset in front of them.”

But when she couldn’t hold it all in, the 3-year-olds kept asking what was wrong. She said she told them she had received bad news.

“And they keep asking me if my nose is OK because they thought that I said, ‘I had a bad nose.’ They just keep asking, ‘Is your nose OK, Mommy? Is your nose OK?’ They just don’t know.”

Now the DeHavens have to wait. No one from DCF or Cornerstones has called them with more information.

All they have to go on, Nicole said, is the judge’s ruling. In it she wrote:

“(The little girl) shall be moved to the home (in Manhattan) in a manner that is deemed appropriate by Cornerstones of Care, with (the girl’s) emotional well-being kept as the priority.”

And, Nicole said, “We don’t know when they’ll decide when she’s emotionally ready to be moved.”

Baumgardner has already called the Kansas Attorney General’s office and said she plans to talk with others about what is happening to the DeHavens.

“I personally will urge anyone that has that opportunity to be a party to the appeal process that they will,” she said. “This is a circumstance where a 3-year-old child has never lived with those half siblings. This 3-year-old child has only known one home.

“This really illustrates the deep, deep cracks there are in the foster care system.”