In Kansas, some judges let foster parents sit in on hearings involving the abused and neglected children in their care. Others don't.
Foster parents say that's not fair.
"Keeping foster parents out creates a break in the validity of the information that's presented," said Susan Moore, a Gardner foster parent who's cared for more than 65 children since 1997. "Judges hear whatever social workers want them to hear, and that's not always accurate."
Earlier this year, foster parents lobbied legislators for equal access to the hearings. Legislators, in turn, directed the state Office of Judicial Administration to launch pilot projects in two judicial districts -- one urban, one rural -- in which foster parents would be allowed to attend hearings.
Later this year, foster parents in the 18th Judicial District (Sedgwick County) and the 21st Judicial District (Riley and Clay counties) will be allowed in to court hearings.
"This is a major victory for us as foster parents," said Lisa Shikles, a foster parent and president of Foster Children of Johnson County Inc.
"We are the ones who are with these kids morning, noon and night," Shikles said. "We need to be heard."
It's not unusual, Shikles and Moore said, for social workers or attorneys to tell judges that visits between a birth parent and a child in foster care are going well, when foster parents know better.
"A lot of times, what the social worker sees is how everybody's smiling after a visitation," Shikles said. "But what they don't see is how the child acts out that evening. That's what the foster parent sees; the judge needs to hear about that, too."
Moore added, "All we're saying is that to make an informed decision, the judge needs to have both sides."
Plans call for lawmakers evaluating the experiment during the 2005 legislative session. If successful, it probably will be expanded to judicial districts across the state.
Also, birth parents in the three counties will be allowed to bring two trained advocates with them to court.
These advocates will not be allowed in the courtroom until after they've completed the course being developed by the Office of Judicial Administration.
"This should be good for the biological parents because they go into these hearings so filled with so much hurt, fear, anger and emotion, they don't know what's going on. They listen, but they don't hear," said Rep. Brenda Landwehr, R-Wichita.
Lawmakers hope the advocates with birth parents understand the processes for retrieving their children from the foster care system.
"I talk to a lot of parents who've had their kids taken from them -- they don't know what's expected of them, they don't know how the system works, nobody explains things to them," Landwehr said. "That's not fair to them, and it's not fair to the kids. I'm hoping this'll change that."
Neither the birth-parent advocates nor the foster parents will have a say in the proceedings; instead, they will be there to listen and, if asked, respond to questions.
Advocates who become unruly will be removed from the courtroom and banned from future proceedings.
Sedgwick County juvenile court Judge James Burgess welcomed prospects of birth parents being better informed.
"We want to get them on board as early as we can," Burgess said. "We need to get them past all the anger that keeps them from being part of the solution rather than being the problem."
Douglas County juvenile court Judge Jean Shepherd doesn't share Burgess' enthusiasm.
"We've always let foster parents attend the hearings, so I don't see that as a big deal," Shepherd said. "And (birth) parents are represented by attorneys -- if they think their attorneys aren't protecting their rights or explaining things to them, then they have remedies for that."
Shepherd said she was worried that increasing the number of people at the hearings would "add to a mix that's complicated enough as it is."
Sherry Love, president of the permanency division at Kaw Valley Center, which provides foster care services under state contract, shared Shepherd's concerns.
"By opening up the hearings to more people, we're increasing the number of people who are going to hear that child's story -- that can be very difficult for the child," Love said.
"I'm glad they're doing this as a pilot project first," Love said. "We need to be sure we don't harm the child."
Kaw Valley Center has the foster care contract for the region that includes Douglas, Franklin and Jefferson counties.
It's not known when the pilot project will begin.
"We're trying to figure where the money is going to come from," said Ron Keefover, spokesman for the state Office of Judicial Administration. "Once we get that worked out, we'll know more. But it'll be before the (start of the 2004 legislative) session." The session begins Jan. 12.