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Respected head of local SRS office fired

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Saturday, May 28, 2011, at 12:07 a.m.

Jean Hogan, for six years the respected and innovative regional director in Wichita for the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services, has been fired by the state secretary of SRS.

Friday was her last day. She started as a social worker for SRS 38 years ago, and worked her way to the top of the Wichita regional office six years ago.

She said she was given the news by SRS chief of staff Jeff Kahrs, and that she's not the only regional SRS director being removed.

"So I get to retire," she said. "The chief of staff said the Secretary (new SRS director Robert Siedlecki), would like to pick his own administrative team."

"I want the community to know how important it is for SRS to be the eyes and ears for the safety and protection of children," she said.

Her removal, and what she said is the removal of other state SRS regional directors, is coming at time when SRS's budget for taking care of children, the poor and the elderly is being cut. Since 2009, she said, her Wichita staff has been reduced from nearly 600 positions to about 490 now. The Kansas Legislature this year passed a budget cutting $10 million across the board from state social services.

A spokesman for SRS did not return calls for comment.

The move surprised and disappointed some of the key law enforcement, courts and medical officials who protect children's safety in Sedgwick County.

Many front-line officials who protect children from abuse have said for years that Hogan does a superb job, that she not only saved a lot of children from abuse but was always responsive and quick to make changes when people called with complaints about SRS.

"I was taken aback by the move, actually, "said Lt. Jeff Weible, commander of Sedgwick County's Exploited and Missing Child unit, which investigates crimes against children. Weible said Hogan was always superbly organized and efficient, not only about helping law enforcement protect children but in helping families by keeping them together whenever possible, and in getting them resources to help keep a home together.

He said the problems that Hogan helped him deal with are numerous and significant. His office, Weible said, works in close cooperation with SRS social workers while investigating 1,100 to 1,200 crimes against children every year, nearly half of them sexual abuse. They also deal with about 1,300 runaways each year, and about 300 Internet crimes every year in which predators are stalking or abusing local children in some way.

Judge, doctor surprised

Among other child protection officials surprised by Hogan's firing was Katherine Melhorn, a pediatrician at Wesley Medical Center and one of the key officials who helps investigate child abuse cases, and District Judge James Burgess, who as presiding judge of Sedgwick County's juvenile court has overseen thousands of child protection cases over the years.

"I was appalled," at Hogan's termination, Melhorn said. "We are losing someone in this community who has tremendous people skills, a good feel for the entire child protection system, and someone who, when SRS was not doing the best possible job, would always work to make it better."

Melhorn says she is frequently disappointed at how little the public seems to know about how bad child abuse is here, and how good a job people like Hogan have done to deal with it. Children are coming into Wesley Medical Center every week, their bodies bearing the signs of abuse, or neglect, "bruises not adequately explained, or kids who are failing to thrive," Melhorn said.

Hogan did a great job of helping those children and investigating cases, Melhorn said.

Burgess has said for years that some legislators in Topeka are critical of SRS but have never taken a close look at how widespread and vicious child abuse is in Sedgwick county.

He said Hogan was always so organized about solving problems in the SRS office in Wichita, in spite of budget cuts, that he has for years referred to her and her staff as "Hogan's Heroes."

"I can only guess that part of the reason for this move is to revamp things and start something new," Burgess said. "I can't know what that something new would look like, but I would hope that all our data and all our federal audits show that we are doing an awful lot right here. No one had better lose sight of that."

Several years ago, he said, the huge number of child abuse reports coming in to police and other agencies in Sedgwick County was threatening to overwhelm the agencies responsible not only for protecting children but for deciding within state-mandated 48 hours whether a child should be removed from a home.

Burgess said Hogan solved that by quickly redesigning how SRS gets into new such cases. She put SRS case workers inside the Wichita Children's Home, the first stop when police take a child out of a home for investigation.

"It was a brilliant innovation on her part, and it not only streamlined how such investigations are done but probably saved hundreds of kids from having to go into foster care," Burgess said. "It also saved taxpayers a great deal of money when she re-configured how those investigations were done."

Lawmakers weigh in

Jim Ward, a Democrat from Wichita in the Kansas House, wondered on Friday why Hogan and other SRS management leaders were removed, and why now. He said it is probably no coincidence that it happened soon after the legislators closed out their session. Any legislator like him who wants to investigate it will have to wait seven months until the next legislative session begins, he said.

He also said the departures from SRS management staff are coming after a lot of money has been cut from SRS's budget, not only for child programs but for care for the elderly.

"They are carrying out a purge of many years of institutional knowledge," Ward said. "But how can they do this and carry out SRS's mission? What is their plan, and is it good for Kansans?"

But Brenda Landwehr, a Wichitan and a Republican House member, dismissed Ward's concerns. "Jim politicizes everything these days, and I've told him no one listens to him anymore."

Landwehr over her years in Topeka has been a frequent critic of SRS, but Burgess has praised her in the past, saying she is one of the few SRS critics from the legislature who has taken the time to sit in his courtroom and watch firsthand how child protection cases unfold.

Landwehr said Friday that she does not know why the SRS director fired Hogan. But she said there are times when perhaps "it is just time for changes."

She said SRS for years has been a big agency with workers who could use more education, more training, and better guidelines about how and when to remove children from homes. She has never thought SRS did enough to bring about those changes. And she never thought the Wichita office did enough to respond to concerns of people outside their system.

She said, however, that she has known Hogan for years, and respects her. "We have our differences of philosophy," Landwehr said. "But she was always approachable, and she never ducked my calls."

Life after SRS

Hogan, 59, said on Friday that she understood the criticisms of SRS over the years, and always tried to address specific concerns.

"We have always had to walk a tightrope," Hogan said. "There are people who think we do too much, that we are too invasive, and there are people who think we don't do enough."

She said she wants to "see what the real world is like now," having spent her whole life in social services. Her job was never 8 to 5 and 40 hours a week; with the advent of the Blackberry and e-mail, she was pretty much working or on call 24/7, she said.

She plans to garden and walk more now, and spend time with children and grandchildren.

"But I'm not ready to leave the work force yet," she said. "I'll take some time off, but after that I'll do some exploring and see if there's some good I can do."

"I'm going to miss the people here," she said. "They provide services to vulnerable Kansans, children and families, the disabled, the unemployed, those who need child support enforcement. They do it well, and I want them respected for the hard work they do."

Reach Roy Wenzl at 316-268-6219 or rwenzl@wichitaeagle.com.

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