Published March 29th, 2015 at 6:50 PM
A former child protection supervisor with the Kansas Department for Children and Families office in Winfield has filed a “whistleblower” lawsuit, accusing the agency of firing her for calling her supervisor’s attention to false reports filed by a social worker.
In the lawsuit, filed in early December in Cowley County District Court, Karen King asks that she be reinstated with back pay.
King’s attorney, Orvel Mason, declined to comment on the case.
“What’s in the petition is pretty much what we’d have to say,” he said. “We’ll leave it at that.”
Theresa Freed, a DCF spokesperson, said the department is preparing its response to the lawsuit. She also declined comment: “Outside of court, we cannot comment on pending litigation.”
‘Chaotic’ work environment
King’s lawsuit came as no surprise to Rebecca Proctor, executive director at the Kansas Organization of State Employees, a labor union that represents state employees.
“The work environment at DCF is chaotic in all the regional offices,” Proctor said. “It’s been through more reorganizations in the past year and a half to two years than any other agency that KOSE works with. It’s like they’re continually reorganizing, retitling positions and changing requirements for their employees.”
Amid those changes, DCF is dealing with record numbers of at-risk children entering the state’s foster care system.
According to DCF reports, 6,156 foster children were in “out-of-home placements” in April 2014, which, at the time, was an all-time high. Since then, the monthly counts topped that number in May, June, July and October of 2014.
All of those records were broken last month when the department reported having 6,275 children in foster care – that’s 329 more children than a year ago and 639 more than two years ago.
DCF officials have attributed the increases to corresponding greater public awareness and reporting of child abuse and neglect. Child advocates have cited how the increases coincided with cuts in the state’s public assistance programs.
Earlier this year, DCF Secretary Phyllis Gilmore said during an appearance before the House Social Services Budget Committee that the department was aware of the increases but had not been able to find the “silver bullet to keep children safely in their homes.”
DCF also is named in a federal lawsuit that accuses the agency and one of its contractors of removing a 4-year-old Hiawatha boy from his mother’s care and allowing his father and his father’s girlfriend to care for him despite the father’s history of domestic violence. The boy was later murdered by his father and his girlfriend, both of whom are now in prison.
In December, DCF Deputy Secretary Kathe Decker and Prevention and Protection Services Director Brian Dempsey left the agency.
Freed, the DCF spokesperson, said in an email that the agency “has made numerous improvements during this administration to further our mission of protecting children, promoting healthy families and encouraging personal responsibility. We have also worked hard to support our staff and encourage positive working conditions. We will continue to make reforms to make DCF the best social services agency.”
In her lawsuit, King said that between 1985 and 2000 she was a child protection worker in the Winfield and Wichita offices of what was then known as the Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services.
In 2000, she left the state agency for a social work position with the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit at Wesley Medical Center in Wichita.
In April 2013, King returned to the state agency, which had been reorganized and renamed as DCF, to take a supervisory position in Winfield, overseeing eight child protection workers in Barber, Cowley, Harper, Kingman, Pratt and Sumner counties. Her annual salary was nearly $42,000.
Although she was a supervisor, King said in the lawsuit that she was “not given (the) authority to discipline any employee.” The office, she said, was “generally short-staffed.”
In her lawsuit, King said she reported to her supervisor in July 2014 that a social worker had filed paperwork indicating that she had conducted safety checks on children on days she had not worked.
King said she subsequently called the inaccuracies to the attention of her supervisor on several occasions. Each time, she said, she was told her concerns had been “turned over to personnel.”
A month later, King said, she was told the worker would not be disciplined because too much time had passed. At that point, King took it upon herself to call the errors to the worker’s attention.
A few days later, King said, she was summoned to the DCF regional office in Wichita, where she was handed a termination letter, advising her that her position was an “unclassified appointment” and would end that afternoon.
King said that prior to her dismissal, she had “never” been warned or reprimanded by her supervisors. Her performance reviews, she said, had shown that she was meeting the agency’s expectations.
Her termination, she said in the lawsuit, constituted a violation of the state’s whistleblower act, which is meant to protect workers who report malfeasance.
The issues King describes in her lawsuit sound familiar to Wendy Flickinger, who runs the Hutchinson-based Family Advisory Council program that counsels parents whose children are in foster care.
“There are tons of foster homes that are supposed to be monitored that rarely see a worker,” Flickinger said. “We deal with that all the time. Someone is supposed to go by and see them once a month, but they don’t. There’s a lot of chaos, but it’s not because people don’t want to do their jobs. It’s that the money only stretches so far and there can only be so many workers. And when that happens, things slide.”
Investigation of Wichita DCF office
King’s return to the state agency in 2013 occurred as DCF was investigating reports that its Wichita office had been steering children at risk of entering the state’s foster care system toward FaithBuilders, a group supported by several evangelical churches in the Wichita area. Some parents accused FaithBuilders of later undercutting their efforts to be reunited with their children.
The director of the Wichita office, Diane Bidwell, resigned in October 2013, shortly before the results of the investigation were presented to Gilmore.
The investigation, formally released in January 2014, found that the office improperly shared confidential information with FaithBuilders and that Bidwell had allowed the group to influence some of its foster care decisions.
Bidwell, FaithBuilders and the investigation are not mentioned in King’s lawsuit.
Dave Ranney is a reporter for KHI News Service in Topeka, a partner in the Heartland Health Monitor team.
A collaboration among KCUR Public Radio, KCPT Public Television, KHI News Service and Kansas Public Radio, Heartland Health Monitor focuses on health issues and their impact in Missouri and Kansas.