Education

Discrepancy arises over how teacher handled abuse concerns about Lucas Hernandez

A billboard near downtown Wichita asked for help in locating 5-year-old Lucas Hernandez.  His body was found under a rural bridge in Harvey County in  May.
A billboard near downtown Wichita asked for help in locating 5-year-old Lucas Hernandez. His body was found under a rural bridge in Harvey County in May. File/The Wichita Eagle

The Wichita school district now says that Lucas Hernandez’s teacher twice reported to the state suspicion that he was being abused or neglected within a few months before he died.

But the child protection agency says it never got any such reports — a discrepancy that raises the question of whether human or technical factors involved in making reports might have kept concerns from being communicated about the 5-year-old boy.

The teacher says she made the reports on a computer at work and sent them anonymously online to the Department for Children and Families on Oct. 19 and Jan. 22, said school district spokeswoman Wendy Johnson.

The state agency has repeatedly checked its records, DCF special counsel Brian Dempsey said. “If there was a report on Lucas, we’d have it.”

Under state law, school staff are legally obligated to report suspicion of child abuse or neglect to the child protection agency’s reporting center.

Reporting suspicion is important enough that state law makes it a misdemeanor if a teacher or other mandated reporters, including health care professionals, do not report suspicion of abuse.

Every year, school staff receive reminders that there are no repercussions for reporting. The issue is timely now because students have recently returned to school after summer vacation. Teachers are seeing young children — and possible signs of abuse — for the first time in months. Because of that, abuse reports typically spike at the beginning of the school year.

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) statistics show that more than 700,000 children are referred to child protective agencies as a result of abuse or neglect in the U.S. each year. According to Purva Grover, M.D., a pediatric eme

How to report abuse

If a mandated reporter successfully sends an online report to DCF, he or she gets a reply message with an “event number” showing that the report has been received by DCF. The verification message returns to the email address manually entered into the web report system.

Whether Lucas’ prekindergarten teacher at Beech Elementary got such a message isn’t clear. The Eagle has asked the school district for any verification that the teacher filed reports but hasn’t received any. The district said it is relying on the teacher’s account of how she reported.

What’s also not clear is how the teacher reported to DCF anonymously. There is no way to anonymously report online on the DCF web page, according to the agency. The DCF page directs mandatory reporters to a form designated for them, which requires the reporters to give their names.

Someone can make an anonymous report by phone. But that would make it harder to obtain additional information, Dempsey said.

Current and former school staff in the Wichita area told The Eagle that it would be unusual for a teacher to report anonymously because as a mandated reporter they shouldn’t fear repercussions for reporting.

The tragedy involving Lucas has become “a good opportunity to educate everybody” about the need to report and the process for doing it, Dempsey said.

Emily Glass, the girlfriend of Lucas’ father, reported him missing on Feb. 17, prompting a three-month search for the boy until Glass led a private investigator to Lucas’ body under a remote bridge in Harvey County. She killed herself two weeks later.

Sedgwick County district attorney Marc Bennett said that Emily Glass was the only suspect in the death of 5-year-old Lucas Hernandez during a press conference at his office Friday.

Teacher’s revelation

In an Eagle article posted to Kansas.com on July 27, the school district spokeswoman said that people at the 5-year-old’s school had no suspicion that he was being abused despite the bruises across his face on Jan. 22 — a little less than a month before he disappeared. The school nurse measured and documented the nine bruises or scrapes, including six on his face. Child abuse experts told The Eagle that the injuries should have caused suspicion that must be reported under state law.

In that article, Johnson said that instead of reporting the injuries to the DCF, the school referred them to a community medical clinic. Lucas, who lived with Glass, came back to school three days later with a note from the clinic nurse saying his injuries were consistent with a fall. Child abuse experts disagree with that assessment.

After the Eagle article appeared, a person identifying herself as Melissa Allen posted this comment on a Facebook page belonging to Lucas’ grandmother: “I was his teacher we did our jobs and reported it. Do (SIC) talk about something you know nothing about!!!”

Allen hasn’t responded to repeated phone calls asking her to explain what she reported and how she reported it.

The teacher said she remembers the two dates she made the reports because school events that coincide with those dates, Johnson said in an email. Oct. 19 was the date of Lucas’ parent/teacher conference. Jan. 22 was when he came to school with the bruises and when the school nurse documented the injuries.

Johnson said she spoke to the teacher, “and she indicated that she did submit reports to DCF — online — twice.”

“Because staff are not required to filter their reports through supervisors or other district staff, we weren’t aware of her report until referenced in the Facebook message you asked about,” Johnson said in an email.

“If we learn that there are breakdowns in process somewhere,” it will be addressed, she said.

On Feb. 17, 2018, Lucas Hernandez was reported missing. On May 24, he was found. Here is what happened leading up to Lucas going missing, in between, and after he was found.

Anonymity problems

To collect child abuse reports, the DCF directs mandatory reporters like school staff to its website, where they click on the form for mandatory reporters. Each reporter has to give his or her name before answering a series of questions designed to collect information so the DCF can accurately assess whether a child could be abused.

Asked why Lucas’ teacher reported the way she says she did instead of using the designated mandatory reporter form, Johnson said, in an email: “I do not know. Anonymous reporting is an option provided to all mandatory reporters.” DCF, however, maintains that there is no online option for anonymously reporting.

Dempsey, the DCF attorney, said one drawback for a mandated person reporting anonymously by phone is that it can leave them without documentation that they did report as required under the law.

Another drawback, says Loren Pack, a former social work coordinator for the Wichita school district, is “you deny DCF the ability to follow up with more questions, to dig deeper.”

As a mandatory reporter, Pack said, “you are a professional, and you’re obligated to report under the law. Reporting anonymously just doesn’t make sense in these situations.”

“That’s just part of our obligation in society to try to take care of children,” said Pack, who now teaches social work students at Wichita State University and the University of Missouri-Kansas City. “Sometimes, we just have to put ourselves out there and hope the system works in the best interest of the child.”

Granted, he said, an anonymous report is better than none.

The DCF page also gives people the option of calling a toll-free number to report a suspicion.

But online reporting can be more time-saving and convenient for school staff than making a phone-in report, Pack said.

As the district’s social work coordinator for 10 years, Pack helped refine the district’s policy on reporting suspected abuse and neglect. One of the most important rules, he said, is the one that says that “once the observation and information causes any employee to have suspicion of abuse and/or neglect, the obligation to report the suspicion becomes legally mandatory.”

Based on the extent and location of Lucas’ bruises, Pack said, any school staff who dealt with his injuries should have suspected possible abuse.

District policy also calls for notifying the school principal because “we want to understand and monitor what is going on with our students,” said Johnson, the district spokeswoman. “That allows us to serve and support them in the best possible way.”

Johnson said her understanding is that Lucas’ teacher didn’t notify her principal after filing the reports.

Johnson also wouldn’t answer why the teacher had suspicion and reported it but the school nurse and other staff who knew of Lucas’ injuries didn’t.

“The teacher will not be sharing any information, as she indicated she did what she is obligated to do and reported to DCF through their online system,” Johnson said.

The DCF continues to say it has no records of reports described by the teacher.

What will never be known is how the DCF could have responded to new concerns about Lucas that surfaced at his school, according to the teacher, four months and less than one month before he died.

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