When the 22 children arrive at Brookcreek Child Care Center in Lawrence each day, teachers use a flashlight to take a careful look at each of them to check for signs of sickness or any other physical problems.
Early in June, it was during this early-morning check that Darla Edmiston, director of the center, said the staff found that a 3-year-old boy had a welt on his lower back where they also could see a handprint, etched in red bruises.
"You could see three fingers and a thumb . . . the red imprint," she said.
Edmiston said she immediately called Child Protection Services at the local office of Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services to report what she considered a case of child abuse.
But although SRS officials said they would respond, a caseworker didn't arrive until almost 4 p.m., and even then did not check the child's back but said she was taking the child home, Edmiston said.
EDMISTON said the caseworker told Brookcreek teachers and officials that the child's mother already had told the caseworker she had put the mark on the child's back by slapping him, and that the mother was under a lot of stress.
Edminston and former Brookcreek director Esther Kottwitz, who is on the child care center's board of directors and also works as a research assistant at the Kansas University Bureau of Child Research, both claim this is a example of the slow and ineffective response of local SRS officials to reports of possible child abuse or neglect.
Kottwitz, who was director of Brookcreek from 1987 to 1989, said 80 percent of the times she calls SRS to report possible abuse or neglect, she gets little or no response unless she is very persistent.
Once, she said, she get no response to a case of what she thought was child abuse until she contacted the Douglas County District Attorney's office.
KOTTWITZ also said she does not blame the problem on specific caseworkers, but on a system that is overburdened.
"I always have to take an extra step," when calling SRS, she said. "If I call and don't get a response from one person, I'll go to another. But sometimes, I haven't gotten a response from SRS when I feel there is some imminent danger."
Although not asked to respond to the particular case brought up by Edmiston, officials in the Lawrence SRS office recognize that child care providers are frustrated with the system.
Jim Baze, section chief in the Lawrence office, and Bob Boyd, director of Child Protective Services, point to a huge increase in the number of cases they are now handling with four full-time caseworkers and one part-time caseworker the same number they had eight years ago.
BAZE SAID the caseload has gotten so large that the length of response time "to more minor neglect cases or even minor suspected abuse cases" has increased.
"I refer to it as a triage, like in the "MASH" television show," Boyd said. "We look for the worst, and move on down the line. But we have not, to my knowledge, left a kid in a dangerous situation without making sure the kid is not going to end up hurt."
Rick Spano, an associate professor in KU's School of Social Welfare and the administrator of Trinity Foster Home in Lawrence, said he is not surprised that employees in child care centers express frustration with the SRS system.
"In the quarter-century I have been in the business, I have never seen the situation more critical," he said.
SPANO SAID the people working for SRS "are put in positions where they are asked to do something but are not given the resources to do the job.
"There's no doubt those in foster care and child care got into it because they want to help children," he said. "To have a personal and professional commitment and then see a kid burned or bruised or in some way harmed and then get no response, it's very frustrating.
"And unfortunately, you get angry at the persons who can't respond. You tend to blame the victim. And social workers are victims.
"This is a war, and there are casualties all over the place; the persons who try to work with the kids, the kids and the families."
Specifically, Boyd said the Lawrence CPS department, which deals with calls that have anything to do with endangerment of a child from all of Douglas County, investigated 875 cases last year, up from 453 cases in 1982.
AND THE TREND points to an increasing caseload again this year.
"That gives some idea of what's happening in the system," Boyd said.
Baze, who has been with SRS 20 years, said he understands the frustration many people have with the agency.
"We encourage reporting of suspected abuse, and people do that, and it's certainly not wrong of them to expect an immediate response," he said. "But we have a limited ability to respond to the initial report."
Concerning a handprint on a child's lower back, Baze said different people could interpret this differently. Spanking a child is not illegal, he said.
"We have to determine when spanking exceeded rational human behavior and whether or not the known risk of removing a child (from home) is warranted," he said.
BAZE EMPHASIZED that it is not his agency that removes children from homes, but the courts, although SRS officials may make that recommendation. He estimated that 25 percent of abuse reports are confirmed, and less than 5 percent result in removal of a child from the home.
Baze also said SRS workers and officials are constantly concerned that they may needlessly interfere in the lives of families.
"We have to make sure we're not interfering in issues of judgment," he said. "We're an arm of the government, and potentially the wrong kind of `big-brother' government."
Because of the frustration inherent in dealing with child abuse on a daily basis, SRS sees quick turnover in caseworkers. Byers said in his three years as director of CPS, he has had to replace people in all but one caseworker position.
"There's too much to do, and little job satisfaction, and not enough pay," he said.
BAZE SAID the lack of time to do follow-up work, to get to the root of the problems and help families, is one reason for turnover.
"A sex abuse investigation can really wear you down emotionally," he added.
Kottwitz and everyone else contacted about SRS' response to abuse calls said they understand SRS caseworkers are overworked. But Kottwitz said the system needs to be changed to offer more protection to children in abusive situations.
"I'm not always confident SRS is an advocate for children," she said. "Children are left in a situation for years where I believe irrepairable damage is done. The first five years of life are so important."
"I don't think there is ever a reason to justify hitting a child," Edmiston said.
Baze said he was not surprised by a report released last week by the U.S. Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect, which said the nation is in a "child protection emergency" requiring an immediate response.
"It was a restatement of what's been obvious to those in the field for some time," he said.