Rescuing children from abuse and neglect means sorting out conflicting accounts, balancing competing rights and drawing on limited resources.
It’s a process fraught with uncertainty and risk, even as it relies on and benefits from the professionalism and best judgment of social workers, counselors, investigators, advocates, prosecutors and judges.
And last week south-central Kansas saw again what system failure looks like.
It looks like the stabbing death of a 10-year-old Wellington boy, allegedly at the hands of his mother, five days after the Kansas Department for Children and Families had received a report of non-abuse neglect with regard to the family.
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It also looks like one Sedgwick County case, which is being followed as part of Deb Gruver’s “In Need of Care” series for The Eagle, in which there were at least 18 reports of suspected abuse before a 14-year-old diagnosed victim of child torture and three other children in the home were moved in March into protective custody.
The now-15-year-old girl weighed 66 pounds at the time, having variously endured – among the allegations detailed in petitions – being chained to a bed, locked in a windowless basement room, and being made to drink hydrogen peroxide. Gruver reported Friday that prosecutors also had accused the teen’s adoptive parents of beating her “with a foam hard-core bat and a broken curtain rod ‘whereby great bodily harm, disfigurement or death’ could have been inflicted,” and that a pediatrician had recommended terminating the parents’ rights.
Earlier last week prosecutors, acting on questions raised by The Eagle, had discovered that there had been more reports of suspected abuse of the girl than the previously reported nine. Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett said that DCF had not given his office all of the reports, and he didn’t know why. The office was seeking a court hearing to clarify the record, noting in its pleading that on Dec. 11 it “was informed that no additional records would be provided to the district attorney’s office as part of the ... case.”
Obviously, prosecutors need full, timely access to information relating to cases in order to do their jobs properly. It’s hard to connect the dots without knowing that half of them exist.
And for citizens, who normally are not privy to the confidential proceedings described in Gruver’s series, it’s hard to feel confident in the process given report after report of alleged injury to and abuse of the girl over five years – most concluding with DCF determining that the allegations were unsubstantiated and services were not needed.
Relating to the case of the murdered Wellington boy, DCF officials told The Eagle last week that the agency had received three reports on the family, including one of non-abuse neglect on Dec. 9 (not against his mother) and one in May regarding medical neglect that was not substantiated.
Such heartbreaking cases are complicated, with lots of tough questions still to answer. But they fuel ongoing concerns about whether a system inevitably at risk of tragedy is doing enough to prevent it.
For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman