HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) — The Madison-based non-profit “Kids to Love Foundation,” which offers programs, residency and placement for children in foster care, is in a court battle with the Alabama Department of Human Resources.

DHR, as it’s known, oversees child protection services in the state, including the foster care system.

The department suspended Kids to Love’s foster care referrals in June, but its licenses for foster care placement and private adoptions remain in place. Court records show DHR sent Kids to Love a letter dated June 15, alleging violations of Minimum Standards for Child-Placing Agencies.

Kids to Love CEO and Founder Lee Marshall said the current situation is difficult to understand as the non-profit was the subject of an exhaustive inspection by DHR in June, that reviewed its facilities and records.

“It is a very thorough evaluation, and Kids to Love had zero deficiencies across the board for our child-placing agency and Davidson Farms,” she said. “That is unprecedented in our world, but it is something that we work hard, that visit was in June, and we had zero deficiencies.”

But some time after the inspection, DHR suspended referrals to Kids to Love, basically stopping its ability to help place foster children with families. Kids to Love has filed a lawsuit naming DHR Commissioner Nancy Buckner and other top DHR officials.

“We are waiting to be set on a docket and asking that we have our opportunity to reveal the truth of what is going on and what is going wrong within the system that does not put children first,” she said.

Marshall said the decision to sue the DHR officials was not taken lightly or done quickly.

“We have spent over a year trying to work with that. In that time of deciding what we do, nowhere in policy does it state that you cannot seek legal action as a license provider. If that was the case, we would not have gone this route… Because again, our goal is to serve children in foster care, but we have to work with DHR in order to do that, and they are not willing to work with us.”

Among the issues DHR cites is the non-profit showing images of children in foster care, which the agency says violates confidentiality rules. Marshall said the non-profit has shown pictures of children in foster care for years based on longstanding agreements with DHR.

DHR also faulted Kids to Love saying it “continually portrays itself as being able to do foster parent adoptions which is false.”

DHR’s letter to Kids to Love includes a number of concerns including a complaint about a Facebook post that Kids to Love doesn’t show that DHR does provide material goods for kids even in emergency situations and criticism that Kids to Love says it has rescued nearly 290,000 children –  DHR argues “Removal of children from unsafe situations is done by the men and women in the DHR county departments across the state who work day and night often in unsafe situations and often involves court intervention.”

It also faults Kids to Love for a child’s counseling record that should have been available, contact with a juvenile court judge involving a child’s case, and DHR criticized Kids to Love for its alleged interference in a permanency plan for adoption of siblings.

Marshall said Kids to Love has made numerous attempts to communicate with DHR, seeking to address any problems the agency has identified. She said DHR has not responded to those requests.

Regarding the suspension, Marshall said word slowly reached Kids to Love.

“Within a week we were notified, not officially by DHR but with contacts within DHR that referrals to Kids to Love had been frozen,” she said. “We had no knowledge; they did not explain why. We continued to get referrals as needed because there are children that are sleeping in county offices because the need is so great. And, so we would get a referral, we would have a foster family or a space at Davidson Farms available and we would place these children.

Eventually, Marshall says she learned Kids to Love’s foster homes were formally frozen in the state’s “FACTS” computer system that tracks children in foster care – meaning the organization could no longer place children.

“Once our homes were frozen in FACTS we were grounded, we had no way to utilize our homes,’ Marshall said. “So we have amazing foster families that are committed and have gone through the training and necessary vetting to provide a loving home for these children, but all of our homes were frozen in the FACTS systems.”

In response to a request for comment from News 19, DHR said Kids to Love said Marshall had asked for a retraction of an internal email in December and also included included “demands and timeframes for the (DHR) Commissioner to meet, along with instructions to call Ms. Marshall.”

That meeting did not take place. The agency said Kids to Love also reached out to DHR in July, but the agency declined the meeting.

“On July 26, 2023, the Kids to Love director sent another email to Commissioner Buckner asking for a meeting,” DHR said. “However, due to the fact that Kids to Love had already engaged counsel, DHR legal counsel advised that there not be a meeting since attorneys on both sides began communicating in mid-June 2023.”

Marshall said during that period Kids to Love continued to try and get answers.

“At that point, we’re trying to communicate, we’re asking what is going on, why? We have had zero deficiencies,” she said. “You cannot show us on paper. They will not respond. At that point, we were forced to hire legal counsel, and then last month, their next move was them to try to start moving children placed in our foster homes out of our foster homes. And that’s when we said ‘That’s enough’ and that’s when we asked the court to file a restraining order, to not be able to move any more of our children, and the court granted that restraining order.”

DHR has asked the Alabama Supreme Court to lift that restraining order, arguing the court doesn’t have the authority over an executive branch agency. News 19 asked DHR if Kids to Love’s licenses for foster care and placement are in good standing.

The agency replied Tuesday evening, “Their licenses are still in effect, as are 23 other child placing entities in the state, 35 residential care providers, and 2,474 foster homes.”

News 19 asked DHR if concerns about Kids to Love raised in its June letter had been addressed or if it was aware that efforts to address those concerns were underway.

In its reply to News 19, DHR said:

“Some of the concerns were resolved through court intervention. These concerns are unprecedented, and the civil litigation filed is non-typical of child placing agencies, of which there are 24 across the state that serve children.

A child placing agency license gives an organization the ability to place children, at the request of their custodians, into their licensed foster homes; it does not automatically grant the right to place foster care children currently in DHR’s custody. Many child placing agencies do not place any foster care children and only conduct private placements, which the license allows them to do.

In the United States, child welfare is heavily regulated, as it should be. DHR must follow thousands of child welfare laws, regulations, and policies on the state and federal level, and it is DHR’s duty to ensure those are being followed.

DHR currently holds custody of on average about 6,000 children each year. Around 3,000 leave care and another 3,000 come into care each year. It is ultimately, DHR that stands in for the parents of these children and must provide for their placement and planning of their care.”