WICHITA, Kan. _ When a local middle school mistakenly reported a 13-year-old home-schooler to the state as a truant, it seems like the matter could have been easily cleared up.
Instead, Ashton Baker ended up in the Wichita Children's Home, having been dragged into the state child-welfare system in a county that critics contend is one of the most likely places in the U.S. to take children from their parents.
Along the way, Ashton's mother, Bambi Baker-Hazen, missed a court hearing, which she says she never received notice of, and her ex-husband was given temporary custody of their daughter. After Ashton ran back to her mother's house, police arrested the girl as a runaway. A judge subsequently found a lack of supervision at the mother's house and ordered Ashton placed in the Wichita Children's Home, although Baker-Hazen still has custody of her three other children — ages 6, 8 and 16. The girl ran away from the home on Monday and was still missing Tuesday, according to her mother.
Baker-Hazen contends that the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitative Services misled the court when it said it made reasonable efforts to keep her family together. The department and the local district attorney's office won't discuss the case, citing privacy laws, but Baker-Hazen produced documents confirming that truancy was the reason for the department's involvement.
Her allegations aren't unusual in Sedgwick County. While the state agency says it complies with all federal rules, the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform claims that the department is evading requirements that reasonable efforts be made to keep children out of foster care and that it is underreporting cases to a central federal database. Critics contend officials in Sedgwick County are overreacting to some high-profile child abuse cases, such as a 2006 one involving two Wichita children allegedly starved, beaten and tortured by their father and stepmother.
Advocacy groups and angry parents have pointed to comments from the head of the state agency, Don Jordan, who indicated in March that his case workers felt pressured by the Sedgwick County district attorney's office to include false information in court documents to ensure children are removed from homes. Jordan has since retracted that statement and the district attorney's office denies the allegation, but a complaint from local family advocacy group Citizens for Change Inc. led to an audit of the state agency by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Results haven't been released, but the federal agency has noted that the Kansas department will be implementing an improvement plan soon.
According to National Coalition for Child Protection Reform's analysis of official numbers, 6.3 per every 1,000 children in Sedgwick County were removed in 2007, up from 4.2 per 1,000 children in 2006, when the national removal rate was 4.1 per 1,000 children. National statistics aren't yet available for 2007, but the group's executive director, Richard Wexler, expects the removal rate for the country to remain largely unchanged.
While some other counties across the U.S. had much higher rates in 2006 (for example, Philadelphia County, Pa.'s rate was 10.2 and Franklin County, Ohio's was 10.6), Wexler's Alexandria, Va.-based group contends that 80 percent of children removed in Sedgwick County may not show up in official numbers.
"If you counted all of the off-the-books placements, Sedgwick County would be a candidate for the child removal capital of America," Wexler said.
He said Kansas, unlike other states, uses a loophole in federal law and does not count in its foster care placement numbers those children taken into "police protective custody" who are returned days later.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Social and Rehabilitative Services, Michelle Ponce, said the agency reports all cases that involve the department, as required by federal regulations. She said she has not seen any good data involving the numbers of children taken into police protective custody, when the department is not always involved.
According to its Web site, the Wichita Children's Home took in 1,861 children from police referrals in 2006, compared with 631 children from the Department of Social and Rehabilitative Services and 69 from parents.
Ashton ended up at the children's home after a middle school that mistakenly had her on its rolls reported her as truant, even though her mother's home was properly registered as a home school. Baker-Hazen has since enrolled her other three children in public schools.
Although the Department of Social and Rehabilitative Services stated in court documents that it made numerous attempts to find the mother before a hearing on the truancy matter that led to the father gaining temporary custody, Baker-Hazen said the only thing the agency did was deliver a summons to her vacant former address. The girl's father, Paul Baker, called police and reported the girl as a runaway when he found her missing from his home. Police found the girl at her mother's house and took her away in handcuffs, something police say is common in cases involving runaways.
Both parents are now trying to get Ashton back, but Baker-Hazen said that because the girl ran away from the children's home she would end up in a juvenile detention facility once she's found. The mother said she had not heard from her missing daughter.
"I think she is scared. I know she is scared," Baker-Hazen said Tuesday.
And although Baker had concerns about the education his daughter was receiving at her mother's house, he said he agreed with his ex-wife about one thing: "She should be with one of her parents."