When Nicole DeHaven’s little girl sees the orange lights, pumpkins and ghosts hanging outside homes or inside stores, she can’t help but get excited.
The toddler knows the big day — her big day — is coming. And all these decorations must be for her third birthday, which is just three days before Halloween.
“Every time she sees something she’s like, ‘It’s my Happy Day! It’s my Happy Day,’” said DeHaven, of Gardner. “She thinks all of it is for her. Her brother says it, too.”
But DeHaven still can’t bring herself to plan a party for the little girl she and her husband, John, have fostered in their home since she was three days old. Because, deep inside, the DeHavens fear that the state of Kansas could come any day and take her away and drop her off at an adoptive home 2½ hours away with people she doesn’t know. All before her “Happy Day.”
As each day passes, the couple fights to keep their family intact. And at the same time, Cornerstones of Care, a child welfare contractor for the state of Kansas, works on an adoption that would place the toddler in a home with three of her biological siblings she’s never lived with.
For many, the DeHavens’ story has become an intense battle of what may look good on paper — adopting four biological siblings together — versus what is best for a little girl who could be taken from the only home she’s ever known.
“The amount of stress and anxiety is, I can’t even begin to describe it,” DeHaven told The Star. “I don’t sleep. My husband has a hard time sleeping. It’s just we’re terrified. We’re terrified that they’re going to come one day and just out of retaliation, take her from daycare.”
If the little girl — who the couple nicknamed “Meeps” because of a phase where she kept saying, “Me, Me, Me” — is taken to that new home, she’ll leave behind her foster brother who is just one month younger and who has been in the DeHaven home since he was six days old. To keep that from happening, the DeHavens have hired an attorney and told their plight to Kansas lawmakers hoping someone could do something.
Kansas is one of the only fully privatized child welfare systems in the country, with four contractors, including Cornerstones of Care, that handle foster care services in the state. The system has been beleaguered for years. While improvements have been made, guided by a 2020 legal settlement, the state still falls short of key measures.
In the DeHaven case, Cornerstones continues to move toward adoption, Nicole DeHaven said. And as that happens, the case continues to draw ire from many fellow foster parents and lawmakers.
Among their chief concerns: If the contractor and the state knew that in the end the four children needed to be adopted together, why wasn’t that done sooner? Why didn’t they move more quickly to keep the little girl from building a bond with a family during her first three years of life?
“It’s a very sobering situation,” said Sen. Molly Baumgardner, R-Louisburg, who has spoken to the Kansas Department for Children and Families multiple times on behalf of the family in her district. “And it is, I believe, already starting to create an atmosphere of uncertainty. … Just that aspect of being taken away from all that you know, there are no words that a 3-year-old can understand for that.
“It is ideal to keep siblings together. But first and foremost, must always be the guide of what is best for the individual children, each individual child, what is best for them? And that is being ignored.”
Adopt all or none
On Halloween three years ago, John DeHaven — who is a licensed clinical social worker and in the past has worked in child welfare — got a call at work. Would he and Nicole, who had become licensed foster parents the month before, be interested in taking in a three-day-old girl?
“He knew he didn’t have to call me,” Nicole said. The answer was yes.
Four weeks after that call, the couple received another one. This time, about a six-day old boy. By the end of 2019, the DeHaven family had grown to four and the bond between all of them had started to grow.
The couple would eventually adopt the little boy in October 2021.
And though they filed paperwork to adopt the little girl soon after the court terminated the girl’s biological mother’s parental rights in December 2020, the process wouldn’t go as smoothly.
The girl has six biological siblings who were removed from the mother’s home about four months before she was born. One sibling has since aged out of foster care, DeHaven said, and two want to remain in care with a guardian until they reach 18.
The remaining three biological siblings are in foster care together. That family would like to adopt the youngest, DeHaven said, and another couple has told the state they would like to adopt the other two to meet their specific needs.
Cornerstones’ plan, however, is to take those three siblings and move them to an adoptive home with the little girl who has lived with the DeHavens. That move would not only separate them from people they have bonded with, but also from schools and sports teams for the older children.
“What sounds like on paper a great policy, these are siblings that have not been together since this little girl was born,” Baumgardner said. “Except for on play visits.”
The DeHavens said that after they told Cornerstones of Care they wanted to adopt the girl, they were told “we are not an option and we never will be an option.”
“We were not going to be able to adopt all four kids,” Nicole DeHaven said. “So it was like an all or nothing thing.”
Mike Deines, spokesman for DCF, said after the DeHavens spoke to lawmakers last month agency Secretary Laura Howard “immediately instructed the department to look into the case.”
And though the case review is complete, details can’t be shared on a specific case, Deines said.
“It is important to keep siblings together in both placement and legal permanency whenever possible, which is why DCF does everything we can to recruit foster families who can care for large sibling groups,” he said. “... Decisions to split up siblings and adopt them out to separate families are carefully considered and require specific approval from the case team and the court.”
Nicole DeHaven worries about what she may one day have to say to the little girl whose first word was “Dada” and who loves Minnie Mouse and hanging out with her brother.
“How do I explain to the girl that’s almost three years old, that these people want to be her mommy and daddy?” DeHaven said, her voice breaking. “How do I explain to her that if this goes through, she’s never going to be able to see her brother again?”
Telling their story to lawmakers
John and Nicole DeHaven stood side by side at a podium inside the Kansas Capitol last month. Lawmakers on the Kansas Joint Committee on Child Welfare oversight listened intently to their story.
Typically, people speak for 10 or 15 minutes, sometimes less. But the DeHavens stood there for just over an hour.
Nicole DeHaven broke into tears explaining their struggles and the loss she was at for how to explain to their son why his sister wasn’t with them anymore.
“This would be equivalent to his sibling dying,” she said.
DeHaven explained that she and her husband felt they were victims of retaliation for pushing against the wishes of caseworkers at Cornerstones of Care.
After they argued with their caseworker over what therapist to bring the little girl to, DeHaven said, the case worker falsely claimed John had gotten aggressive and slammed his hand on a table.
“Every time we stand up and advocate we get slammed down,” she said.
John DeHaven, who currently works at Osawatomie State Hospital, spent 13 years as a social worker and investigator inside Kansas child welfare, for both the state and contractors. He told lawmakers that he typically agrees that kinship care and being adopted with biological siblings can be “incredibly important.”
“However, one of the things that I’m frustrated with is they did not act in what we call child time,” he said. “A year or two to a 16-year-old is a lot different than a year or two to an infant. Infants naturally reach out and form bonds and attachments, it’s how we grow and develop.”
The little girl has formed those bonds and attachments with his family over the past three years, he said. She and her little brother constantly play together, his wife said, and even at daycare they used to be referred to as the “foster twins.”
“If the agency had worked within child time, the damage would have been far less significant,” John DeHaven said. “But, however, they spent over a year on their thumbs essentially. And now the damage to (the little girl) from my professional opinion would be catastrophic.”
Lawmakers expressed support and concern. The DeHavens, they said, were the rare example of a family willing to speak publicly.
“I have had call after call after call from foster parents who have the same as what you’re talking about,” said Rep. Susan Concannon, a Beloit Republican and chair of the committee. “And they want to come tell their story but they’re scared to death to do it because of retaliation.”
Keeping siblings together often comes above the individual interests of children, said Charlotte Esau, an Olathe Republican.
“I hear it too often … we’re putting kinship care over what is in the best interest of all the children,” Esau said.
After the DeHavens’ testimony, executives at Cornerstones of Care answered lawmakers’ questions about the case. They said they had only recently become aware of the family’s concerns and were launching an investigation.
“There are a lot of parties involved in this case that supported the position where this ultimately landed,” Dr. Lanette Madison, executive director of Kansas Programs, said. “I can assure you we do a very thorough deep dive.”
Cornerstones of Care told The Star they could not comment on a specific case but provided their policy on keeping siblings together.
“Siblings who are kept together frequently have better outcomes. DCF Policy 5237, relative to Sibling Placement and Connections, states that Cornerstones of Care is obligated to make every effort to have siblings achieve permanency together and place siblings in separate homes only in ‘extreme circumstances,’” Cornerstones of Care spokesman Jon Ratliff said in an email.
Early this year, a family resource worker at Cornerstones recommended the family hire an attorney and get a bonding assessment done, Nicole said. The family resource team sent a list to her husband of groups where licensed therapists conduct those assessments.
The couple chose Attachment and Trauma Therapy.
But, on April 19 — six weeks after it was completed — they got a call from a Cornerstones caseworker saying that DCF does not accept assessments by that group, Nicole DeHaven said.
In May, the DeHavens completed a second assessment with another group recommended by Cornerstones.
That assessment explained that removing the little girl from the DeHavens’ home “could be devastating to her future.”
“At the age of 2½ this is the family who (she) knows and loves,” the bonding assessment said. “If she were removed at this point and placed with people who she has limited history or attachment with, significant attachment issues would likely arise.
“Removing this attachment from her life could likely result in developing an unhealthy attachment style which may contribute to mental health concerns for many years to come.”
But the family was then told in June that the second assessment couldn’t be used in Wyandotte County court where the case is because the team at Cornerstones didn’t tell them to get an assessment, only play therapy.
The therapist rescinded her assessment, the family said, after being contacted by Cornerstones of Care. However, the little girl is still getting therapy by that therapist.
“It’s so frustrating,” Nicole DeHaven said. “(The case team) keeps saying we didn’t tell you that.”
But a caseworker did, she said.
Foster parent numbers dropping
Since the couple spoke to the Joint Committee in Topeka, Nicole DeHaven said more than 100 people have contacted her through message boards and forums.
“They say, ‘This happened to us, this is the same story,’” she said. “‘And that’s why we don’t do foster care anymore.’ Because of the retaliation that they suffered, and unfortunately, that the children suffered.”
Indeed, the number of foster parents has decreased significantly in the past two years, though the exact reason why isn’t clear. One of the state’s contractors testified to the Legislature last month that Kansas has lost nearly 500 foster families since May 2020.
These days, DeHaven spends many nights and other free moments on the Internet researching other cases and state laws and policies. The more time she spends doing that, or talking to people who may be able to help, the less time she has to sit around and think about what could soon happen to her family.
“I feel like the time is ticking and I’m losing time,” DeHaven said. “I’m losing that opportunity to try to get people aware of this and saying, ‘This has to be stopped. They can not go through with this, because they’re hurting these children and really hurting our little girl.’ … There’s a panic.”
If the DeHavens are able to keep the toddler, they’ve told the contractor and the state they will maintain and continue to build the relationship between her and her biological siblings.
The couple asked the Division of the Child Advocate to investigate their case in July. That investigation is ongoing. Nicole DeHaven received an email Wednesday asking for more information.
After the hearing, Baumgardner has continued to talk with the DeHavens and touch base with DCF on the case. The focus continues to be the little girl, the lawmaker said, not in pointing the finger at a contractor or worker.
“I know it’s easy for folks to say this is just one child,” Baumgardner said. “It is one child. And it illustrates that every single child is important. This is the one I know of today.
“And if we say, ‘Well, you know, we shouldn’t jump in, this is just one child,’ then at what point are we going to bring about change?”