Agency chief: Kansas has no backlog of child abuse reports

? The top administrator of the state agency charged with investigating reports of child abuse and neglect in Kansas is rejecting allegations that it fell behind in reviewing those reports and suggested that a legislative leader’s criticism could hinder the agency’s efforts to protect vulnerable kids.

Incoming House Minority Leader Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat, called on Republican Gov. Sam Brownback to fire Secretary Phyllis Gilmore at the Department for Children and Families. Ward was responding to newspaper reports about a DCF manager’s internal Sept. 22 email saying agency centers in Topeka and Wichita faced a “backlog” in handling reports of abuse because of “a severe staffing issue.”

Gilmore and other agency officials said the manager’s email was poorly worded and resulted from a staff meeting that discussed extra work created when the department’s own employees file duplicate reports on a single incident. To support their argument, they released another manager’s internal Sept. 22 email that acknowledged “staffing struggles” but did not say there was a backlog.

Department officials said that “priority” reports of abuse, such as those involving a child with visible bruises, are being handled within hours. Decisions about investigating other reports also are made within 18 hours, they said.

Gilmore said during an interview that she worries criticism of the department over “something that was false to start with” could lower employees’ morale and create a distraction for them as they handle reports of child abuse. She said Ward “seems to be obsessed with our agency.”

“We have staff who are doing such good stuff — not just trying, but succeeding,” Gilmore said. “Then there’s this constant hammering, ‘Oh, they’re awful, they’re awful, they’re awful.’ That is what I find concerning because it’s counterproductive to what we’re accomplishing here.”

Ward, an attorney who’s handled child welfare cases, said he believes the department doesn’t have the staff or money to adequately protect abused and neglected children. He said his obsession is “protecting these vulnerable children” and argues that the department under Gilmore is “failing miserably.”

“The governor needs to fire Phyllis Gilmore,” Ward said. “Every time we’ve scratched the surface, we’ve seen significant — not minor — problems.”

A legislative audit in July suggested the department struggled to provide adequate oversight of private contractors who place abused and neglected children in foster homes. A follow-up audit in September said the agency was failing to meet some federal requirements. The department said it has addressed 7 of the auditors’ 18 concerns and will address the rest within the next year.

Brownback continues to stand by Gilmore, and she said Kansas has a good record of protecting abused and neglected children compared to other states. Among other things, DCF cited statistics showing that the state’s rate of child deaths from maltreatment per 100,000 children was well below the national average from 2001 through 2014.

The state has reported five deaths from maltreatment for children in foster care since 2001, though three have been within the past three years.

The latest questions arose after The Topeka Capital-Journal first reported the internal Sept. 22 email saying the reporting centers had a “backlog.” The email was written by Candace Moten, DCF’s family preservation services program manager.

Another DCF official, Susan Gile, who is assessment, prevention and interstate placements program manager, sent an email the same day to let other employees “know how we can help” the centers during “one of their [peak times] of the year.” It said the goal was to “minimize duplicate work.”

“Any relief they can get will be helpful,” the email said.

The department has nearly 2,700 positions, but 463 were vacant as of late November. Fourteen of the reporting centers’ 81 staff positions were vacant, though Leslie Hale, the department’s director of prevention and protection services, said open jobs are being filled and employees are volunteering to work overtime in the meantime, typically four to six hours a week.

As for priority abuse reports, Hale said, “They’re dealt with as soon as they get in the queue.”

Rebecca Proctor, executive director of the Kansas Organization of State Employees, said the state workers’ union has not heard of a backlog in reviewing reports of child abuse.

But, she added, “We have heard in general that DCF is having trouble staffing and that most of their positions are understaffed.”