The arrest of a Topeka couple on child abuse charges has raised new questions about a custody battle that some say illustrates a pattern of discrimination against gay Kansans seeking to adopt children.
The 2014 custody case pitted a lesbian couple from Wichita, Lisa and Tesa Hines, against Jonathan and Allison Schumm of Topeka for custody of the Hineses’ foster child, Isabella, who had been in their care since she was 5 days old.
The Hineses were married in 2008 in California, but in 2014 Kansas did not recognize same-sex marriages, so Lisa Hines pursued the adoption as a single adult. But after a months-long battle, the court granted custody to the Schumms on the recommendation of the state’s Department for Children and Families.
Last week, the Schumms were arrested and charged with multiple counts of child abuse, according to the Topeka Capital-Journal.
Kari Schmidt, Lisa Hines’ attorney, said she was “heartbroken” when she learned the Schumms had been arrested.
Looking back, Schmidt said she was concerned about the Schumms’ ability to care for another child when the court approved their adoption of Isabella. At the time, the couple had 14 children — 10 adopted and four biological — in their 2,220-square-foot home, a number that disqualified them from acting as foster parents for the baby but not from adopting her. They now have 16 children.
Schmidt’s clients were both licensed social workers and were raising no other children.
“Contrast that to the home she was placed in,” Schmidt said in a phone interview Monday. “It defied logic to me. That’s why to this day I firmly believe it was a pretext to deny a lesbian couple a child they had bonded with.”
Tesa Hines believes that too.
“I believe it was very political,” Tesa Hines said. “I believe they did not want us to adopt her mostly because we were lesbians. I think also because we were outspoken black women, both of us.”
Johnathan Schumm, a Topeka City Council member who is out of jail on bond, said the Hineses aren’t victims of discrimination. In a brief interview Monday outside his home, he said the couple’s sexual orientation was not a factor in the custody decision.
“That case was argued solely on whether or not we qualified as family based on her siblings,” Schumm said, before declining further comment.
Court documents show that state officials urged the court to place Isabella with the Schumms because the Topeka couple already had adopted some of her half-siblings. Schmidt argued that should have had no legal bearing on the case because Isabella had never known or lived with her siblings.
State officials pushing for Isabella’s placement with the Schumms seemingly ignored some warning signs, including previous allegations of abuse.
Asked for comment, Theresa Freed, a spokesperson for DCF, said the agency is prohibited from talking about specific cases.
In a blog called The Schumm Explosion, Allison Schumm wrote about the couple’s financial problems and their difficulty dealing with and disciplining so many children.
In an April 5, 2013, post titled “Loving the Unlovable (Bonding Part 2),” Allison Schumm wrote about one of the early days when the couple had started fostering three children they eventually would adopt.
One day, a police officer came to the house to question Allison Schumm about a pile of rocks in the yard and a dozen broken windows in the building next door. When the children denied having anything to do with it, Schumm concluded that she and her husband had “taken in furious vandalizing thieves and liars” and had to devise a suitable punishment.
“After carefully thinking about it and realizing that they were never going to be able to pay for it, Jonathan and I decided in loving our children they would have to fill 12 40-pound cat litter buckets with rocks and carry them across our 1-acre parking lot of a yard and dump them,” Allison Schumm wrote.
A year later she wrote about the stress of dealing with an abuse investigation. Eventually, she wrote, “two very kind ladies from DCF showed up” to wrap up the investigation.
“They talked to our boys, then talked to my husband and I about our discipline techniques, thanked us and told us that we would receive a letter within the next few weeks stating that all changers (sic) were unfounded,” she wrote.
A few months after that post, a DCF contractor recommended that Isabella be placed with the Schumms instead of Hines.
Schmidt said she believes the Hines case is part of a concerted effort by officials in Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration to steer children away from gay couples, but it’s an effort that’s been complicated by the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, which compels states to allow and recognize gay marriage.
Schmidt isn’t alone in her concerns.
In July 2013, Johnson County District Court Judge Kathleen Sloan removed a child from state custody after finding that DCF officials had gone to extreme lengths to build a case against a woman in a same-sex relationship seeking to adopt her foster child.
In the ruling, Sloan cited an email from a DCF official to Phyllis Gilmore, secretary of DCF, in which the official mentioned the foster mother’s sexual orientation as a concern. Sloan said in the ruling that DCF officials had abandoned the state’s legal directive to act in the best interests of the child and instead pursued a larger social agenda.
“They were clearly alarmed that this child might be adopted by a gay couple,” Sloan wrote. “DCF worked hard to try and build a strong psychological and medical case against these women.”
The Hineses say DCF was similarly biased against them, with one social worker telling them at the beginning of the process that their petition to adopt Isabella was going nowhere.
“She basically told us the Schumms were going to get the baby,” Lisa Hines said. “That’s just the way it is.”
In July of this year, another judge raised questions about DCF policies towards gay Kansans. Douglas County District Court Judge Peggy Carr Kittel sent a letter asking officials to respond to reports that the agency was preparing to allow only married couples to act as foster parents.
“With the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, Kansas must recognize same-sex marriages, so I assume then that same-sex married couples will qualify,” Kittel wrote.
Around that time, Rep. Barbara Bollier, a moderate Republican from Mission Hills, emailed Gilmore to say she was hearing from constituents with similar concerns — that gay couples were on the verge of being shut out of the foster care and adoption process.
Gilmore insisted at the time that DCF didn’t consider sexual orientation when making foster care and adoption placements. She said much the same thing last week when testifying at a legislative hearing where some lawmakers raised questions about the ability of same-sex couples to be good parents.
“The formal policy is we follow the law, and that will continue to be true,” Gilmore said.
Still, questions persist about the administration’s attitudes toward gay Kansans. Brownback, an opponent of gay marriage, rescinded anti-discrimination protections for gay state workers and moved the authority for licensing foster homes from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment to DCF, a move that heightened concerns among same-sex couples seeking to foster or adopt children.
Those concerns are unfounded, Gilmore said.
“We are reviewing from bottom to top the entire licensure system, but I think that is a myth that is just sort of self-perpetuating,” she said. “We’re focused on the safety of children in the best possible way. We really want to focus on family preservation and children not even being removed from the home.”
However, a former highly placed official at DCF said the agency’s leaders and other top officials in the Brownback administration oppose allowing gay people to adopt children.
“There was not a general attitude against gay people,” said the former staffer, who requested anonymity. “But there was a general attitude against gay relationships, gay marriage, having gay people bringing up children, that type of thing.”
Andy Marso is a reporter for KHI News Service in Topeka, a partner in the Heartland Health Monitor team. You can reach him on Twitter @andymarso
Jim McLean is executive editor of KHI News Service in Topeka, a partner in the Heartland Health Monitor team.