‘They traumatized her without any reason.’ Kansas girl, 3, sent to live with new family

Crying that she wanted to go home, a 3-year-old girl was sent to live with a new family Tuesday afternoon, devastating the one she had lived with her whole life.

“You could hear her crying down the hall,” said Nicole DeHaven, tears falling down her cheeks as she talked about the little girl she and her husband, John, have raised since she was three days old. “They had to hold her back. She kept saying, ‘I want to go home. I want to go home.”

Wyandotte County Judge Jane A. Wilson ordered the DeHavens to turn over the girl at the county’s juvenile office by 4 p.m. Tuesday, the couple said. From there, the girl in the pink Aurora princess dress would be taken to a family in Manhattan, Kansas, that wants to adopt her.

In a decision Friday, Wilson ruled against the recommendation of the Kansas Department for Children and Families that the girl stay with the DeHavens, who have been her foster family since Oct. 31, 2019.

Wilson then consented to the girl being adopted by the Manhattan family, which has three of her biological siblings, although she has never lived with them.

DCF has appealed that court ruling.

The case has caught the attention of the public, child advocates and Kansas lawmakers. Many say that, while on paper reuniting siblings is often best, in cases such as this other factors should be taken into consideration.

The girl has never lived with her siblings and has spent just 10 hours with the Manhattan family. The DeHavens’ Gardner home is the only one she has ever known.

And, critics point out, if getting the siblings together was so important, why has it taken three years, all while the little girl has bonded with the DeHavens and their other child?

As Nicole DeHaven stood outside the juvenile center in the biting cold Tuesday afternoon, she sobbed as she thought about the little girl who has never spent a night away from home.

“They don’t know her routine,” she said. Or what she likes to eat for breakfast, or that “she likes a glass of milk before going to bed.” Or that she likes the milk in her Minnie Mouse sippy cup.

With their adoptive son Riah — who is one month younger than his foster sister — in his arms, John DeHaven said “it’s going to be a rough night.”

“When she cries for Mommy and Daddy, that’s what’s going to keep me up tonight,” he said, looking down and shaking his head.

Tiffany Reed hugs Nicole DeHaven, far right, after she and her husband, John DeHaven, turned over their 3-year-old foster child Tuesday afternoon at the Wyandotte County Juvenile Services Center in Kansas City, Kansas.
Tiffany Reed hugs Nicole DeHaven, far right, after she and her husband, John DeHaven, turned over their 3-year-old foster child Tuesday afternoon at the Wyandotte County Juvenile Services Center in Kansas City, Kansas.

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 with a family that was willing to take all four siblings.

But three months ago, the story seemed to be headed toward a happy ending for the DeHavens. The couple learned on Halloween — the third anniversary of when they first brought the baby girl into their home — that Laura Howard, the secretary of DCF, had changed course and was recommending the girl stay with them.

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 girl should stay in Gardner.

They didn’t anticipate Friday’s ruling.

Wilson said in her decision that Howard wasn’t looking out for the “best interest” of the foster child when she recommended that she stay with the DeHavens.

“Secretary Howard’s decision in this case, to overturn the decision made by agency workers, and, instead of allowing her to be adopted with her siblings, directly place (the little girl) in a home separate from her siblings and in a home that would, by all accounts, cut off all ties to (her) biological siblings, was not in (her) best interest,” Wilson ruled.

The DeHavens — who stepped forward to adopt the little girl more than two years ago when the biological mother’s parental rights were terminated — had said they were willing to keep up a relationship between the girl and her siblings.

The days since the Friday ruling have been miserable, Nicole said. Little sleep, panicky as cars drive by the house, wondering if it’s someone coming to take their little girl.

“It’s like knowing your child is going to be kidnapped,” she said, “but you don’t know when.”

John DeHaven is a licensed clinical social worker and in the past has worked in child welfare. From his training and experience, he said, he knows that removing a child from their home “is always supposed to be the option of last resort, like having a leg amputated. You don’t do it unless it’s absolutely necessary.

“They traumatized her without any reason.”

The Wyandotte County Juvenile Services Center
The Wyandotte County Juvenile Services Center

Nicole DeHaven received paperwork from a sheriff’s deputy Tuesday afternoon alerting her that the child needed to be brought to the juvenile center. That paperwork, she said, also included an order that no “involved party” including her and her husband, was to contact the media or have others contact the media on their behalf to “be present or involved in the delivery of the child.”

“Should anyone violate this order, each person will be subject to a fine of up to $1,000 by this court,” the paperwork said.

Sen. Molly Baumgardner, a Louisburg Republican, has been a vocal advocate for the family for several months. She and other lawmakers have listened to the DeHavens tell their story on multiple occasions as the couple looked for help in Topeka.

“I think it’s very interesting that we’re talking about a gag order, a private gag order in paperwork delivered by law enforcement,” Baumgardner told The Star Tuesday. “... All of this has been shrouded and cloaked in secrecy and that’s not how the judicial branch should operate.”

Baumgardner said that officials and legislators have been “working on this non stop for the last 24 hours.”

“Republicans and Democrats in both the House and Senate are dumbfounded by this decision of the courts and by absolutely ignoring the authority of the secretary of DCF,” Baumgardner said.

Now the family said they fear that those moments inside the juvenile center Tuesday afternoon, with “our daughter” in a princess dress and a faint chocolate circle leftover from breakfast around her mouth, will be the last time they see her.

“I feel like I planned my daughter’s funeral today,” Nicole said. “... We’re afraid that she’s going to think that we didn’t love her. And that she did something wrong. And that’s why we gave her away.”