Wednesday, June 11, 2008

“They lie, they lie, they AWFULLY lie”

The quote, which I've cited on this Blog before, is from an anguished mother in New York City back in 1992, speaking to the now-defunct New York Newsday. Her baby had died because of a defective cradle. The evidence that the death was an accident was so overwhelming that I am confident even the fanatics in Florida who want to label practically everything neglect would agree. But that didn't stop the child welfare agency from taking the surviving children for six months. It probably would have been longer, if not for the work of an excellent Newsday columnist at the time, Carole Agus. There's also plenty of evidence for the mother's comment in this particular case.

Most of the time, workers don't lie outright. The bigger problem is the tendency of all of us to hear what we want to hear or expect to hear. That's why the law should require that all interviews in child protective services investigations be tape recorded.

But now there are startling new accusations that caseworkers in the largest county in Kansas are being bullied and browbeaten into including information in sworn affidavits that the workers don't really believe, in order to hype the case for removing children. What makes these allegations so starting is who is making them: the caseworkers' own boss – the man in charge of the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitative Services, Don Jordan.

This story begins in March, when Jordan met with a grassroots advocacy group, Citizens for Change. SRS had promised to consult with Citizens for Change, and other groups, as part of its efforts to comply with findings from its federal Child and Family Services Reviews. As reported Sunday in The Wichita Eagle:

During a meeting with the advocacy group Citizens for Change on March 18 in Topeka Jordan was recorded saying:

"But in Sedgwick County oftentimes we end up writing things because it's what our social workers get bullied by the District Attorney's Office into writing. So they really have no belief in what it says."[Emphasis added].

Later in the meeting, Jordan said: "I am working on our staff that we do our assessments properly and we not get bullied into writing things we don't believe. But then the reality comes down to, you send a 25-year-old social worker into a room with a 15-year county ADA (assistant district attorney) who is willing to yell at them, cuss at them, scream at them and threaten them, you know."

When Jordan found out his comments would become public – and only then – he said he should not have used the term "bullied." He has not, however, rescinded the terms "yell" "cuss" "scream" and "threaten."

It was also only after he learned his comments would become public that Jordan rushed to call the deputy district attorney in charge of child abuse investigations in Sedgwick County and say he was really, really sorry. In fact, according to the deputy D.A., Ron Paschal, Jordan said he'd merely been "pandering" to Citizens for Change. [UPDATE: A story in today's Eagle (June 19) indicates Jordan and the D.A.'s office may have, in fact, discussed this matter earlier. But whenever it happened, Jordan now confirms the comment about "pandering."].

That's possible, of course. But it's hard to see why Jordan would make such explosive comments, when there are far easier ways to pander. The usual approach is to pull out a yellow legal pad, take copious notes (or pretend to) lean in toward the speaker, nod a lot, say "mmm hmmm" and "I see" and then, at the end say something like "I can certainly see why you're so upset, and we are definitely going to look into this." If Jordan really was just pandering when he made those comments about bullying, cussing, screaming, yelling and threatening, then he's taken pandering to a whole new level.

We also know that Kansas takes children at one of the highest rates in the nation and Sedgwick County, which includes Wichita, might be a contender for child removal capital of America. But it doesn't show up in official figures. That's because the state found a loophole in federal rules for reporting entries into care. (see Turning foster children into unpersons , What Dorothy learned and Kansas forgot, It's not Oz, it's Kansas, and NCCPR's report on Kansas child welfare). It's a sleazy tactic and, when it comes to statistics abuse, we know of no other child welfare system in the nation that has sunk so low. But the federal government has chosen to look the other way. And we know that a lot of the impetus for the high rate of removal in Sedgwick County comes from the District Attorney's office. But that office denies any bullying of caseworkers.

Meanwhile, the county's judges whom, one would hope, would be first to demand an independent investigation, instead are making clear they desperately want to cling to their rubber-stamps and avoid any serious attempt to weigh evidence. The judges say they haven't seen any bullying. But if bullying is going on, surely the judges don't expect it to unfold before their eyes in open court, do they?

But there is one thing we know for sure: If Paschal's description of Jordan's comment is accurate, then Don Jordan has made at least one statement that is blatantly false. We just don't know which one – the one about bullying or the one about pandering.

We also know that if caseworkers are caving in to pressure to hype their allegations against birth parents, then they are violating federal law which requires those workers to make reasonable efforts to keep families together. If, on the other hand, that claim from Jordan was just "pandering" then Kansas is violating its obligations concerning its Child and Family Services Review. Those obligations include meeting with Citizens for Change. If Jordan said he was just pandering, then he was merely going through the motions, holding the meeting to say he held the meeting, rather than to actually exchange ideas or improve the child welfare system. I presume this is not what the federal government had in mind when it approved Kansas' plan.

So NCCPR has joined Citizens for Change in calling on the relevant federal agency, the Children's Bureau of the Administration for Children and Families in the Department of Health and Human Services, to investigate Kansas SRS. But we're not optimistic. The Children's Bureau is the same agency that said it saw no problem in Kansas' scheme to keep thousands of foster care placements out of official statistics.

But the feds aren't the only one who bear responsibility here. A major share of the blame – and full responsibility, now that it's all out in the open - rests with Don Jordan's boss. She tolerated the manipulation of statistics. Will she also tolerate a cabinet secretary who either panders or allows his caseworkers to be bullied – or maybe both? The buck stops with Jordan's boss – the governor of Kansas, Kathleen Sebelius.

What are you going to do about it, Governor?