When someone reported that the adoptive mother of a 14-year-old Sedgwick County girl had hit her with a bat, the Kansas Department for Children and Families found there was not “clear and convincing” evidence that abuse had occurred.
Social workers investigated the October 2012 report and determined the family did not need services from the state agency whose motto is to “protect children, promote healthy families and encourage personal responsibility.”
Prosecutors, however, thought a crime had occurred.
On June 9, a week after The Eagle first wrote about the girl’s case, they filed charges against the couple who fostered and later adopted the girl.
The father faces three counts of child abuse, two counts of aggravated battery, one count of aggravated endangerment of a child, one count of criminal restraint and one count of criminal damage to property. The mother faces the same charges except for criminal damage to property. The alleged incident with the bat was the basis for one of the aggravated battery charges. The Eagle is not naming the parents because doing so would identify the girl.
The report that prompted the girl’s removal from her home this spring was the ninth time in a little more than five years that someone had voiced concerns about the girl’s treatment to the state.
A child-in-need-of-care petition filed on behalf of the girl and three adopted siblings shows previous intakes, or reports, had been determined to be “unsubstantiated” by the DCF.
Although social workers may not substantiate a case, that doesn’t mean they don’t care or try to get help for a child, said Susan Gile, program administrator for prevention and protection services.
“The services that we provide is what protects children,” not a finding of substantiated, Gile said.
In the case of the teenage girl, who allegedly was kept in a windowless room in a basement and weighed 66 pounds, the state had offered the family services only twice in response to multiple reports alleging abuse, records show. After the ninth report, the girl was placed in protective custody. Prosecutors filed the petition at the request of the DCF.
When the DCF substantiates neglect or abuse against someone – concluding that his or her actions meet the legal definition of abuse or neglect – the person is placed on a central registry and not permitted to reside, work or regularly volunteer in a child-care facility regulated by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.
“It is not uncommon for DCF to unsubstantiate and a county or district attorney to file charges for something … maybe child endangerment or battery etc.,” DCF spokeswoman Theresa Freed said in an e-mail to The Eagle.
“They are two different decisions and are not necessarily connected,” Freed wrote. “Just because something is technically criminal does not mean it rises to the level that the agency would substantiate for the purpose of placing someone’s name on the central registry. The court system is designed to punish a person convicted of a crime. DCF’s mission is to protect children, so they have slightly different standards.”
Later, Freed said in another e-mail that “I just want to be very clear … law enforcement and the DA share our goal of protecting children. But we have different standards or thresholds to take action. Although the rate of substantiating is low with respect to total findings, with approximately 6,000 children in foster care, we are taking action to petition the court for removal when appropriate. Our trained social workers do the very best job they can to protect children.
“DCF is criticized for removing children and for keeping them in unsafe environments. It is a difficult balance that requires strong oversight, policies, experience and expertise. We strive to do better everyday in our mission of protecting children.”
Asked whether the department sufficiently protected the 14-year-old girl, Freed said, “While we can’t address specific cases, I can say if there are concerns that DCF policies or procedures failed in any way to protect a child, we will re-examine the case and take whatever action necessary to ensure the safety of the child.”
The DCF substantiates about 6 percent of the reports it investigates, Freed said. Social workers may go to a prosecutor to ask for a child-in-need-of-care petition even if a report is not substantiated, as the girl’s case shows.
Department guidelines list circumstances that may result in a substantiated case finding, including:
On Feb. 8, 2011, someone reported that during an exam at school, a dentist found evidence of blunt-force trauma to the girl’s jaw. The girl “reported she did not know how it occurred or who/what caused it,” according to the petition. The DCF determined the allegations were unsubstantiated, but the parents began receiving therapy services.
Other reports said the girl was thin and often asked for food at school, that she had sores on her mouth, tongue and lip so painful it hurt her to eat, that she needed glasses but the parents had refused to provide them, that she was made to sleep in a bathtub as punishment for wetting the bed and that she had been hit by a bat.
One of the girl’s adopted brothers told a school counselor that their mother beat her with a “cut-up curtain rod,” kept her in a locked room in the basement, made her drink hydrogen peroxide, punished her with hot showers and often fed her just bread for dinner.
Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett said the DCF’s finding “is not the same as finding probable cause that a crime was committed. That may be based on the same set of facts but different standards. We are asking, ‘do we have probable cause that a crime was committed?’ For them, it’s more of an administrative thing.”
Cases on rise
Reports of child abuse and neglect have risen by 25 percent in Sedgwick County in five years, to 12,366 in the fiscal year that ended in June 2013.
After an initial assessment, just less than 60 percent of reports were assigned to local social workers for further review in fiscal year 2013. Freed said the DCF does not keep statistics on how often it offers services to families.
Child welfare practice supports that children should be “maintained safely at home,” Freed said.
Robert Ortega, an associate professor of social work at the University of Michigan, which has one of the highest-rated schools of social work in the country, said the goal of child welfare is to assure a safe and stable living environment that fosters a child’s healthy well-being.
“There is a tension … between best interests of the child and best interests of the ‘family,’ ” Ortega said.
The goal often is to keep the child in the home, “but investigations … must initially establish if abuse or neglect occurred,” he said.
The information gathered during assessments is used “for several distinct purposes,” Freed said in an e-mail.
“At times, families may be offered voluntary services to strengthen the family,” she wrote. “DCF social workers also perform risk and safety assessments to determine if possible protective measures are needed to maintain safety. Finally, the social worker reviews this same information to determine if an alleged perpetrator should be substantiated to place the alleged perpetrator on the central abuse and neglect registry.”
“Our primary objective is not to determine if we are going to substantiate or unsubstantiate. Our primary object is always child safety,” Gile said in an interview. “We make a safety determination of the child.”
Social workers listen to a parent or caretaker’s explanation of what happened and assess whether the explanation makes sense.
“If they say they fall out of bed but the mattress is on the floor …” Gile said.
Social workers also “are going to talk to a number of people, including the alleged victim,” Gile said. “We’re going to document injuries if there are any. Talk to any witnesses. … If we see injuries, and the child needs to see a medical professional, we will facilitate that to occur.”
If the child is found to be in an unsafe situation, the DCF asks the district attorney to file a child-in-need-of-care petition, Gile said.
All states make similar findings, Ortega said. Some states have more than two levels of findings.
Best practices, Ortega said, are for social workers to only interview one party involved in a case. For example, one social worker would interview the alleged victim, another the alleged abuser, another a witness.
“We don’t cross-contaminate by one person interviewing more than one person,” Ortega said.
In the case of the 14-year-old girl, the same social worker interviewed many of the parties, including the girl, the girl’s mother, the girl’s paternal grandmother and a school counselor.
“It certainly isn’t the ideal situation,” Ortega said of that practice.
Freed said there are no DCF policies that limit whom a social worker can interview. She also said a social worker may begin an assessment and then may be out of the office, so another staff member will take over the case.
In Michigan, the Department of Human Services sometimes uses independent assessments by outside agencies to determine how best to protect children. That occurs mostly in cases where something seems amiss but there might not be obvious evidence of abuse.
In those assessments, interviews are done separately and then “everybody comes together and says, ‘Here’s what I’ve learned in the interview I did with this particular person.’ The team doesn’t have any side-by-sides prior to the consult,” Ortega said.
The department then will initiate action by “asking specific questions – ‘what are your recommendations for the next step?’ ” he said. “We offer professional opinion and that presumably is taken into account.”
If a case is substantiated, there are three levels of intervention: supportive services, supplemental services and substitute care, which involves removal of the child from the home.
In cases where a child’s safety is in jeopardy, “something needs to happen to protect that child,” Ortega said. “There are situations that are ambiguous. I think the mindset is that we always want to think about the best interest of the child. But there’s pushback from a number of different influences like the parents themselves, the legal system, the courts, the lack of resources.”
Connie Mayes worked as a social worker and social work supervisor for the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services, now the DCF, from 1991 to last June.
“Child protection work is very, very hard work,” she said. “You’re investigating this family and you’re trying to determine what did and did not occur and at the same time you’re very aware that many children don’t thrive in foster care.”
Mayes said the finding of substantiated or unsubstantiated is “fairly narrow. You can’t make a finding that someone’s an inadequate parent. The finding is very narrow about the event and whether it happened, whether it happened in such a way that it was abusive and whether that person is going to be substantiated and placed on the central registry. You’re taking into consideration, do you have enough solid evidence to withstand any appeal, because you need to be prepared to go to a hearing if you substantiate.”
The department used to have three categories of findings, Mayes said – unsubstantiated, substantiated and validated.
The “validated” finding was used from 1997 to 2004, Freed said. Substantiated meant that the evidence showed the incident occurred but wasn’t severe enough to place the person on the registry. A validated finding meant the incident was severe enough to add the perpetrator’s name to the registry.
Since 2004, the DCF has used two findings. Freed said the change was made before the current administration and she couldn’t say how or why that decision was made.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has found that states where substantiated and unsubstantiated are the only two findings have a higher proportion of unsubstantiated cases than states where caseworkers have options that allow for some uncertainty, such as “unable to determine” or “insufficient evidence.”
The department noted that in one study, workers said “having adequate time to do a thorough investigation was a significant factor to both substantiated and unsubstantiated case decisions.”
Mayes, who said she now is a private therapist, said she thinks there should be a three-tier system: no need for further services, services needed and substantiated.
She also said the state agency needs more social workers.
“The number of social work positions should be based not just on the number of cases but based on allowing workers to go out and spend adequate time on each and every case they are assigned,” she said.
Gile, the program administrator for prevention and protection services, said last year the DCF added 18 social workers.
Freed said the department has 424 social worker positions, and 400 are filled, although 30 are unclassified temporary workers.
Asked if the state needed more social workers, Gile said, “That’s a loaded question. I think it’s safe to say we could always use more social workers.”