Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Concerns arise over SRS files' validity


Excerpted from: The Wichita Eagle


For years, some families have complained that court documents filed by social workers that result in children being removed from the home have contained false or fabricated information.
Now, some say they have proof.

The head of the state's child welfare agency was recorded in a meeting with a family advocacy group saying that Sedgwick County prosecutors have "bullied" social workers into putting information they don't agree with in affidavits. Those affidavits are used to decide whether children remain in protective custody or are returned to their parents.

Sedgwick County prosecutors deny using improper pressure. And three Sedgwick County judges who hear the cases say they have seen no evidence of wrongdoing.

But critics of the state child custody system and some legislators say the remarks by Don Jordan, secretary of the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services, raise questions about the affidavits' validity.

The affidavits are important because judges rely on the documents to decide whether children go home to their parents or remain in temporary custody or go into foster care. The affidavits, typically three to four pages long, are based on interviews by social workers with parents, children, relatives, teachers.

The social workers lay out results of their child abuse and neglect investigations. Prosecutors then cite the documents in petitions recommending that children remain in temporary custody.

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."

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."

Jordan said he made the comments but wishes he hadn't said "bullied," adding that he respects District Attorney Nola Foulston and her staff. "I don't think they intend to bully our staff. It was a poor choice of words.... I don't believe anybody's asked to perjure themselves or lie." He also said social workers should have independence. "I think they (affidavits) should reflect, without intervention of the DA's office, the professional judgment of the social worker."

His comments not only raise questions about the affidavits' validity but also seem to be grounds for families to contest court decisions that have kept their children in state custody, said Vickie Burris, president of Citizens for Change, a statewide family advocacy group.

"The courts are only going to be as good as the information they receive," she said.
Jordan's comments also confirm suspicions Burris has had, based on complaints from families, that the affidavits include false information, she said. Often, attorneys advise families not to contest the information or risk angering the judges, the prosecutors and SRS, she said.

Burris said an observer who was not a member of Citizens for Change recorded the comments. She said she had no part in the recording and learned of it afterward.

Foulston, the district attorney, called Jordan's recorded comments "outrageous."

"That was just so disappointing to have something like that said by an agency head," she said. "You can't un-ring the bell. He's left the impression with citizens and individuals in the community that the District Attorney's Office is doing something that we shouldn't be doing." Deputy District Attorney Ron Paschal, who oversees Sedgwick County juvenile cases, said his staff reviews the affidavits but does not improperly pressure social workers about what they write in the documents.

Although preserving families is one goal of the child-welfare system, "our utmost concern is the immediate safety of the child," he said. "We have a job to do, and they have a job to do, and if they come to our office and have not done it, we're not going to hesitate to ask them to follow up," Paschal said.

Prosecutors have the legal authority and responsibility to order that relevant information be put in the affidavits, Paschal said. Social workers don't have to sign them if they disagree, he said. "We're the ones who have to prove the matter in court."

Paschal said Jordan, after being contacted by The Eagle, called to apologize. "He was pandering to this particular group. He used 'pandering.' Those were his words," Paschal said of Jordan's talk with him.


Long time readers of this blog may recall that we as the Wichita Branch NAACP have been involved in the fight over SRS Child placements for 4 years now. One thing that has become abundantly clear to us now is that, with regard to child placements, there are no innocents... While certainly we have heard the words of Secretary Jordon and we will evaluate them appropriately, we flatly reject the notion that SRS has clean hands and that children would all be placed with their extended families were it not for the actions of the mean-ole prosecutors.

In fact, the Secretary's statements to Citizens for Change in their meeting, and his comments to us in our last meeting a week or so ago, follow a long established pattern. *SRS points the finger at the Police department, the prosecutors office and Youthville; *Youthville points the finger at the SRS, the social worker's affidavits, and the sentences handed out by the Judges; *the Judges point the finger at the parents, the families, and the law. All parties involved have considerable discretion and almost zero accountability. Each agency is empowered to make decisions that affect the lives of children and their families, and yet NONE of them are accountable for the outcomes; each pointing the finger at the next...


*The Social Workers make the recommendations for permanent placement, but its not their fault... "the Judges make the final decisions, besides the Prosecutors are bullies..."

*The Prosecutors pursue the case for outside placement, but its not their fault... "they're working from a signed affidavit provided by the Social Worker..."

*The Judges rule on placement, but its not their fault... "they're only listening to the recommendations of the Social Workers and the Prosecutors..."


Meanwhile, children by the thousands are being removed, not only from their biological parents, but from their entire extended family as well. 74% of these children removed from their homes are placed outside of the extended families. In Wichita the number is even higher, 76.4% are placed outside of the extended family. And most of these families will never be reunited...


It is for these reasons that we believe that by working together with parents, concerned community members, other organizations with similar goals, and even with case workers and employees within the system who truly believe in the need for change, we can successfully pass legislation that will change the landscape. We are currently drafting language that we plan to get introduced in the legislature next session that would change placement within the extended family from a "Best Practice" to a Legal Requirement unless there were exigent circumstances that would prevent such a placement.


Given that we want to limit discretion and increase accountability, I fully expect that there will be considerable opposition to a bill such as this. But to remove a child, not only from their home, but from their entire family is something that should only be done out of absolute necessity. For a child to be severed from their Grandparents, Cousins, Aunts & Uncles, due to the singular perceptions of an unaccountable case worker is unconscionable. So we will drive on, despite the opposition recognizing that our fight is not a legal fight, but a moral one. It is immoral to wantonly destroy all the bonds of family due to the bad choices of the biological parent. And we plan to go to Topeka, stand up, and say so...

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