Law enforcement agencies don't always receive child abuse reports so they can determine whether a crime has occurred, resulting in "many cases where the opportunity for criminal prosecution is missed," a state report says.
The report faults the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services (SRS) for sometimes failing to forward abuse reports to law enforcement agencies.
The review, recently released by the Kansas Attorney General's Office, said another "systemic problem" involves "turf battles" that hurt communication between agencies that investigate child abuse.
And a third problem area: In some foster-care cases, SRS has failed to inform the Kansas Department of Health and Environment of abuse reports, as required by law. KDHE licenses day care homes and family foster homes.
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The report urges dual reporting of suspected abuse by the public and by mandated reporters, such as school staff and health care personnel. It calls for reporting suspicions not only to appropriate state agencies but also to local law enforcement.
Attorney general spokeswoman Ashley Anstaett said she couldn't comment on where turf battles have occurred because the cases are confidential.
Regarding how often reports don't get sent to law enforcement and where that has occurred, Anstaett wrote in an e-mail, "We have found this in numerous counties (certainly more than 1/2 a dozen)." She said she couldn't be more specific partly because of confidentiality issues.
The review covered 1,010 child cases and 446 cases involving vulnerable adults.
Still, she said, "It should first be noted that through our review it was found that information is shared and reported appropriately in the vast majority of cases."
The purpose of the review is "to point out possible challenges and recommend improvements," she said.
The findings come from an annual report published last month by the attorney general's Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation Unit, covering the period from July 1, 2008, to June 30, 2009. The unit's mission is to work with state and local agencies to raise awareness of abuse and exploitation of children and vulnerable adults and to bolster reporting and prosecution, Attorney General Steve Six says on the agency's Web site.
City, county policies
The Wichita school district usually reports suspected abuse to police and SRS, said district spokeswoman Susan Arensman.
However, police wouldn't be notified in situations that appear less serious: for example, where a child hasn't bathed in a few days or wears the same shirt to school three days in a row, Arensman said. SRS would still be notified in the less serious cases.
When the school contacts police in more serious cases, it usually does it by calling 911, she said.
The public also can play an important role, said Wichita police Capt. Brent Allred. His advice is: "If you see something, if you believe something's wrong, a crime's being committed, a child's being abused or neglected, you need to call the Police Department."
In 2008, eight Wichita children died from abuse or neglect. In some of those cases, Allred said, relatives or friends knew something was wrong but didn't report it.
In Sedgwick County, "It would be unusual... to have an abuse case investigated by SRS and not brought to the attention of law enforcement," said Deputy District Attorney Ron Paschal.
That is because of the Exploited and Missing Child Unit, a partnership between SRS and law enforcement.
"In all cases involving serious abuse or neglect or sexual abuse, a social worker is teamed with a law enforcement officer from the beginning of the investigation and therefore both agencies are involved very early on in the case," Paschal said in an e-mail.
SRS has a liaison who works out of a DA's office, he said.
"Our office has daily communication with the investigative agencies."
Still, across the state, there is room for improvement, the attorney general's report said.
Its review found "many cases where the opportunity for criminal prosecution is missed."
It also says that the state agencies receiving abuse concerns should report possible crimes to law enforcement in a timely manner.
In some cases, SRS — which investigates child abuse and neglect reports and recommends to the court whether children should be removed from their homes — failed to forward allegations to law enforcement, the report said.
SRS spokeswoman Michelle Ponce said the A.G.' s review included 921 SRS child cases. Of the 921 cases, a sampling found eight cases in which SRS "substantiated" that abuse or neglect occurred but SRS did not report it to law enforcement, she said. Under the regulatory definition, "substantiated" means that SRS found "clear and convincing evidence to conclude that abuse or neglect occurred."
Three of the eight substantiated cases were referred to county or district attorneys, who can bring criminal charges. The other five substantiated cases weren't reported to prosecutors even though SRS policy dictates reporting all substantiated cases to prosecutors, she said.
It is not a social worker's job to determine whether a crime occurred, Ponce said.
Still, even the less serious cases get forwarded to prosecutors, and in the most serious cases, SRS staff are already working with law enforcement, Ponce said.
None of the eight cases in the review's sampling occurred in Sedgwick, Butler or Harvey counties, Ponce said. According to her, three cases occurred in Johnson County, and one each in Barton, Geary, Leavenworth, Saline and Wyandotte counties.
Examples of concerns
The A.G.' s report cited these examples:
* SRS determined that a step-parent had committed physical abuse. The worker photographed visible physical injury to the child. The incident was not reported to law enforcement, nor was a "child-in-need-of-care" recommendation made to the county attorney. Instead, the family received services.
* SRS found that the husband of a home day care provider had been physically abusive. "The worker documented the injury in great detail and photographed it for the record. The perpetrator admitted threatening the child and the child admitted being afraid of the perpetrator."
After the A.G.' s abuse unit asked about the case, "an SRS supervisor indicated that because the child suffered a 'moderate injury' and because the child was safe and enough facts were able to be documented, 'it was determined law enforcement involvement was not required,' " the report said.
It said the case was forwarded to KDHE, which moved to revoke the day care license as long as the perpetrator stayed in the home.
* Acting on a report from school officials, SRS substantiated physical abuse of a child. The injuries were photographed. During an interview by the SRS worker, the "perpetrator (the child's father) displayed threatening behavior to the worker, blocked the worker's exit from the home and indicated his child deserved what happened and he would do it again under the same circumstances."
The review found no record of SRS reporting the situation to police, although SRS indicated it was forwarded to the county attorney. When the A.G.' s unit inquired about the case, the county attorney had no record of receiving such a case.
The report said another key concern is that some abuse reports provided to SRS weren't sent to KDHE as required by state law.
The report cited two cases:
• In one, a child who had been found to be sexually abusive was put in a foster home with other children. "The child subsequently perpetrated again," the report said. After being informed of the situation by the attorney general's unit, KDHE recommended that a civil penalty be imposed on the "child placing agency." Child placing agencies are usually independent contractors through SRS, Anstaett said.
• In another case, a foster home was found to be in neglect. But the review discovered that the SRS finding was not sent to KDHE. After the attorney general's unit informed KDHE, the agency recommended action against the foster parent.
Despite those cases, the report said, "there seems to be an overall improvement in notification to KDHE."
In a statement, KDHE said it has a "good working relationship with SRS."
One example is the development in recent years of a centralized complaint notification system involving the two agencies, KDHE said.