Politics & Government

After child tragedies, Kansas social workers rarely lose their license

An excerpt from a censure letter sent by the Kansas Behavioral Sciences Regulatory Board to a social worker in 2014.
An excerpt from a censure letter sent by the Kansas Behavioral Sciences Regulatory Board to a social worker in 2014.

A Kansas social worker failed to supervise a man with a history of violence and drug abuse, resulting in serious injury to the man’s infant in 2013.

In response, the state censured the worker for incompetence — by sending her a letter — but didn’t take her license.

A review of five years of disciplinary actions by the state board that licenses social workers shows it has issued few sanctions after high-profile deaths or injuries of children under the care of the Department for Children and Families.

DCF faces intense public scrutiny over several child deaths. Less attention has been paid to the Kansas Behavioral Sciences Regulatory Board, which issues licenses for social workers, counselors, therapists and psychologists – and has the power to take them away.

The Eagle examined every disciplinary action posted on the board’s website from 2013 through the first months of 2018 – several dozen in all. No disciplinary action appeared directly linked to any high-profile DCF child case, though in some reports information was vague and didn’t name an employer.

It’s unclear whether the board will open an investigation into workers involved in the case of Evan Brewer, a 3-year-old Wichita boy whose body was found encased in concrete last year. DCF officials told Brewer’s family that a form in his case file was dishonestly altered, a family spokeswoman has said.

DCF says it encourages workers to report unethical behavior, but acknowledged that the agency itself doesn’t make complaints to the board.

"We are reviewing recent situations to determine if reports should be filed with the (board)," DCF Secretary Gina Meier-Hummel said in a statement.

A ‘light hand’

Kansas social workers are required to adhere to a code of conduct. Felony convictions, incompetence and ethical violations — among other things — are grounds for suspension or revocation of a license.

Someone must make a complaint for the board to open an inquiry into possible violations, and investigations can take months. The process is kept largely confidential unless the board takes disciplinary action.

In DCF-related cases where the board has disciplined social workers, licenses were rarely revoked. That’s despite a state law that requires the board to find that each person who holds a license "merits the public trust."

"From my point of view, I think they are not as aggressive and as assertive about public trust. I think in some ways they have a light hand with that," said Sky Westerlund, who for 20 years was the director of the Kansas chapter of the National Association of Social Workers. She is now an assistant professor at Fort Hays State University.

The board, which has subpoena power, has a full-time investigator and a part-time investigator who look into complaints. The full board issues licenses but typically does not take disciplinary action itself.

Instead, a complaint review committee, made up of a subset of the board, meets every other month to determine whether a violation of the law took place and what sanction, if any, should be issued.

Terry Pfannenstiel, a retired psychologist, has chaired the volunteer committee for several years. He said his approach is both educational and punitive.

"It’s been my experience that a lot of things that come across the desk are not blatant attempts to hurt or harm anybody or go afoul of the regulations, but maybe they didn’t use the best judgment," Pfannenstiel said. "In those cases, nobody was hurt, injured…so we’ll send them a cautionary letter saying be aware of this in the future."

But in cases where a blatant violation has taken place, it may be clear a social worker shouldn’t be practicing and the committee will take steps to make sure that doesn’t happen, he said.

About a half dozen social workers have had their licenses revoked over the past five years. In one case, a social worker married a client. In another, a social worker was using drugs.

The only revocation that appears connected to the foster care system was issued in 2013 but involves conduct from 2011. A social worker reported that a foster home was fully compliant during the process of licensing the home, but the worker had not actually reviewed the home. The worker had also altered dates on a form signed by the foster parents.

That earned a censure from the committee. But it later decided to revoke the license after learning the worker had affixed a supervisor’s signature to a form as though the supervisor had approved it.

DCF says reporting encouraged

Many of the disciplinary actions taken by the committee involve cases that have nothing to do with children. They sometimes involve counselors who have blurred boundaries with clients, or social workers who have failed to report that they were fired from a job. In some cases, workers inappropriately accessed confidential information.

Some disciplinary actions are connected to children and DCF, however. Max Foster, the board’s director, said DCF does sometimes make complaints about its employees, but that it doesn’t happen often.

Meier-Hummel said DCF doesn’t maintain data regarding reporting by individual social workers to the board. DCF spokeswoman Theresa Freed said DCF does not as an agency report violations, and noted that the board requires licensed individuals to report violations.

"We have traditionally encouraged Kansas Department for Children and Families (DCF) social workers, with direct knowledge of unethical behavior, to report to the Behavioral Science and Regulatory Board (BSRB), as they deem necessary. We are also aware at the regional level, some reports have been made," Meier-Hummel said in a statement.

Meier-Hummel said DCF will review its policy and practice to see if reporting of unprofessional conduct by social workers should be strengthened.

Last year, the board censured a social worker for failing to report suspected child abuse, though the censure letter doesn’t say who employed her. When the board censures someone, the licensee receives a letter informing them they’ve been censured and it becomes publicly available on the board’s website, but it doesn’t restrict their ability to practice social work.

The board also found in 2017 that a child protective social worker at DCF had falsely reported attempted contacts with families in need of services, including safety assessments. An investigator for the board who watched the worker found that she ran personal errands, stayed home and later falsely reported she had made contacts with families.

The board ruled that the worker had endangered children and families. She was fired from DCF.

The board suspended the worker’s license for at least six months, but said it would consider reinstatement if she shows satisfactory evidence of insight into her unethical and unprofessional conduct.

In 2016, the board determined that a social worker at the Wyandotte County DCF office failed to complete documentation on her contacts with clients for several months and provided false information to her supervisors. She had had about 55 incomplete files, and DCF allowed her to resign instead of firing her.

The board ordered the social worker to take additional instruction in ethics, with a focus on the importance of documenting client information and protecting confidential information. The board also required a high level of supervision at her next social work job.

‘We do a very good job’

Pfannenstiel said the board is very concerned with protecting the public.

"I think we do a very good job. People take it seriously and it’s a volunteer thing and we put in a lot of hours," Pfannenstiel said.

The board includes 12 members. Most are professionals who come from either social work, counseling or therapy backgrounds. Four board positions go to members of the public.

The board is appointed by the governor. Members serve staggered, four-year terms.

In addition to social workers, DCF also uses special investigators in child abuse cases. The special investigators are not licensed social workers.

The role of the unlicensed special investigators may help explain why few sanctions have been made in connection with high-profile DCF cases.

As of 2015, the ratio of social workers to special investigators was about 5 to 1. Because the special investigators are unlicensed, they fall outside the board’s jurisdiction.

Additionally, the board does not always require social workers to comply with the profession’s conduct code when they are employed in jobs that do not require a social work license, such as case management. Westerlund called the practice "distressing."

Licensure protects social workers, and the vast majority perform good work, she said.

"We want to be held accountable because on the other side of that, for people who are really doing harm and doing bad, we want them out of the profession and we have to depend on the regulatory board to do that and if they don’t do that, it leaves the rest of us taking the blame for the few bad apples that are out there," Westerlund said.

Pfannenstiel said the complaint committee reviews each instance case by case. He said his personal opinion is that those who hold licenses should act as professionals at all times.

"You are held above other people because the public is supposed to trust us,” Pfannenstiel said. “Our behavior is supposed to be above board at all times.”

Jonathan Shorman: 785-296-3006, @jonshorman