Wichita teacher’s case illustrates gray areas of abuse reporting

04/21/2012 5:00 AM

06/27/2012 10:19 AM

A family member of a Wichita teacher whose license was revoked for allegedly taking too long to report suspected child abuse says the teacher “dedicated her life to the care and education of children” and was unfairly punished.

Meanwhile, a national support group for abuse victims applauded the Kansas Board of Education’s decision last week, calling it “a powerful statement that protecting children is not something to be taken lightly.”

Donna L. Ford, a former kindergarten teacher at Cleaveland Elementary School in southwest Wichita, surrendered her teaching license last week to the state board, a condition of her resignation with early-retirement benefits from the Wichita district. She had been a teacher for 17 years.

Kansas law requires teachers, child care workers, doctors and other mandatory reporters to inform the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services or law enforcement agencies if they suspect a child has been abused.

Wichita district policy requires employees to report suspected abuse to state officials “on the same day the suspicion arises.”

“Any time there is a remote suspicion that a child might be abused, it is critical to act on that suspicion,” said Barbara Blaine, president of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, which is based in Chicago.

“There must be clear consequences for those who endanger kids by breaking this simple law.”

But some people familiar with the Wichita case and those whose jobs require them to report suspected child abuse say the decision to report is seldom clear or simple. Often, they say, it is agonizing. Signs aren’t always bruises or black eyes, and every case is a judgment call.

“It’s never black-and-white,” said a former special-education teacher in Wichita. The teacher, who said she made a half-dozen reports of suspected abuse or neglect while working in Wichita and suburban districts, did not want her name used.

“It kills you. It tears your heart up because you want to make sure what you’re doing is right,” she said. “You don’t want to cause problems for the family or possibly make things worse. … And you worry about the backlash.”

Sometimes, she said, that backlash can come from supervisors.

The special-ed teacher said she once called state officials when she learned that one of her students, a severely autistic boy, was often left in the care of his 13-year-old brother, sometimes overnight, while his single father traveled for work.

The day after she made the report and law enforcement officials launched an investigation, she said, the student’s father showed up at the school and complained fiercely to the principal, demanding that the teacher be fired.

“The principal apologized to him and came down on me,” the teacher said. “Everybody knew the situation and knew what I did was right. But the principal worried more about a loud, boisterous parent and didn’t back me up.”

The teacher said she was reassigned to a different school the next year.

Err on side of caution

Sources familiar with the recent Wichita case say Ford, the kindergarten teacher, informed the Cleaveland Elementary principal, social worker and counselor of her suspicions that a 6-year-old girl in her class was being abused by a teenager living in the child’s home.

Ford’s computer malfunctioned while trying to submit a report, sources said, and it was more than a week before law enforcement officials learned of the suspected abuse. In the meantime, the student’s mother met with Ford and other school officials and told them the teenager was no longer living in the home, sources said.

State officials and child safety advocates say educators should report suspected abuse even if they heard about it from a co-worker and if they don’t know all the details.

“When you’re talking about the well-being – and survival, in some cases – of a child, it’s better to err on the side of caution,” said Angela de Rocha, spokeswoman for the state Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services.

Since July 1, 2011, SRS case workers have responded to nearly 19,000 reports of a child in need of care, de Rocha said. Of those, 68 percent were determined to be reports of abuse or neglect; the remaining were incidents of truancy or runaways.

About 18 percent of reports come from educators, de Rocha said.

Under state law, failure to make a report is a Class B misdemeanor that could result in a $1,000 fine or up to six months in jail. Ford, the Wichita teacher, has not been charged with that offense.

De Rocha said state SRS officials “don’t have a precise policy regarding the steps to take if we discover” a report of suspected abuse was delayed or not made. The agency doesn’t track failure-to-report cases.

“It depends on the circumstances,” she said. “What we would do is offer education, counseling to the individual or entity if there’s been a shortcoming.

“The vast majority of teachers want to do the right thing, and I believe most of them err on the side of caution and go ahead and make the report,” de Rocha said.

“This is a very personal and a very subjective thing … One of the outcomes of the report is a child can be removed from a home, and that in itself is very traumatic. We’re all aware of that, and we’re constantly trying to balance all of those factors.”

Who makes the report

Loren Pack, coordinator of social work services for the Wichita district, said school social workers report cases of suspected abuse when they have enough details. If a teacher tells a social worker about a case, he said, the social worker will guide the teacher toward making the report.

“We want the report to be made by the person who observes or was told of the abuse because they have the details,” Pack said. “It is their responsibility to report.”

Wichita district spokeswoman Susan Arensman said she could not comment specifically about the Cleaveland case “due to it being a personnel issue or tied to our internal investigation.”

She would not say whether other school employees who knew about Ford’s suspicions were reprimanded for not making a report.

“(District) policy and state statute require the information be reported right away by the employee who observed or was told about the suspected abuse to ensure the safety of our students and to allow SRS and/or law enforcement to investigate,” Arensman said in an e-mail.

“The ultimate action taken is the result of each individual case and the findings in that case,” she said. “School staff reasonably thought that a timely report had been made.”

‘A career she loved’

Ford declined to comment, citing her agreement with district officials and the conditions of her resignation with early-retirement benefits.

Her attorney, David Moses, said his client “made a fully informed decision” to resign and surrender her teaching license.

Under the terms of the agreement, the surrender did not involve the Professional Practices Commission, a body within the state Department of Education that normally investigates cases of alleged professional misconduct and makes recommendations to the state Board of Education.

“I challenge anybody to point out a person that is perfect and has not made mistakes in their professional or personal life,” Moses said. “It’s ultimately the employers’ responsibility to make sure that the individuals involved in a situation are dealt with but treated fairly.”

David Schauner, general counsel for the Kansas National Education Association, said Wichita officials essentially opted to not just reprimand or fire Ford, but made her surrender her license and abandon her career to get early-retirement benefits.

“I don’t know of another case where that’s happened,” he said.

Brian Stuart, who is married to Ford’s sister, said he has spoken at length with his sister-in-law and that she is “devastated” about leaving her students and her teaching career.

“She would never put any child at risk,” Stuart said. “She made the report … and she was forced out of a career she loved.”

Walt Chappell, a member of the state board who voted against revoking Ford’s license, said he is “still almost speechless as to what’s happened to her.”

“This is a tragedy, and hopefully we’ll be able to get her license back,” Chappell said Friday. “The key right now is to find out why she was the only one … that has been reprimanded and treated so severely, and I think there’s some behind-the-scenes effort to try to get to the bottom of this.”

Quick decisions

Schauner said the state teachers’ union plans to “re-emphasize the duty to report and the importance of reporting” through newsletters and other correspondence with members.

The challenge for teachers and other mandated reporters, he said, is “you’re asked to make a judgment … in pretty short order.”

“You’re trying to read behavior, and it is not easy,” he said. “It is not an easy thing to diagnose or even develop a good understanding about unless you’re a highly trained person who deals in child psychology.

“Most teachers don’t have that training. They’re not psychologists. … That creates a real quandary for the vast number of mandated reporters.”

De Rocha, the state SRS spokeswoman, said the agency’s message to teachers and other mandated reporters – and members of the public – will continue to be: “Make a report. The first consideration has to be the well-being of the child involved.”

The agency also encourages school districts to have specific, step-by-step procedures in place for what should happen when an employee suspects child abuse or neglect.

“It would be helpful and prudent if they had a procedure as well as a policy,” she said. “SRS would be happy to help.”

 

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