Press one of the expand buttons to see the full text of an article. Later press collapse to revert to the original form. The buttons below expand or collapse all articles.
Kansas Child Protectors Fake Evidence
June 11, 2008 permalink
Vickie Burris, an advocate based in Kansas, caught Don Jordan, secretary of the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services, saying in a recorded conversation that affidavits presented to courts by his agency are faked. We have so far been unsuccessful in getting a copy of the recording from Mrs Burris, but we have the report in the Wichita Eagle below.
Concerns arise over SRS files' validity
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.
Custody system critics
Nancy Berry is one of the critics of the state custody system, and she attended the meeting where Jordan made the comments.
Berry, 54, of Wichita, said she spent $30,000 of her retirement savings, much of it on legal fees, so her family could regain custody of her nephew.
For a time, the boy's parents lost custody to the state partly because of older medical records that were "pieced together to make a case," Berry said. A social worker cited the records in the affidavit, she said.
In that kind of situation, she said, a family has great difficulty contesting the information. "If it's in the record, you can't get it out. It's there forever."
Marlene Jones, 69, of Wichita, also attended the meeting with Jordan. Her family also has had a custody battle with the state.
When Jones heard Jordan say that prosecutors were bullying social workers over the affidavits, she said, "I was so floored at what he said, that this man acknowledged... he was aware of what was going on."
Jones, who has voiced concerns to the Legislature about the fairness of the child custody system, contends that her family lost custody of her grandson partly because of false information in the social worker's affidavit.
"I believe that SRS is a necessity," Jones said. "They just have to get it right."
Belief in the system
Sedgwick County District Judge Jim Burgess, presiding judge in the juvenile division, which handles the child custody cases, said the process is thorough and fair.
Burgess said he is confident that prosecutors "would never intentionally put in false information."
Over the years, he has heard complaints that social workers get pressured but has not seen evidence of it, he said.
In "at least 95 percent" of the cases, parents do not contest moves to keep their children in temporary custody, he said.
Critics of the child-welfare system might see details in the affidavits as "piling on," but prosecutors are only trying "to present the clearest picture they can," Burgess said.
District Judge Tim Henderson said he typically sees a social worker's affidavit about 48 hours into a child abuse investigation, after a child has been taken into protective custody.
Before he signs a custody order, Henderson said, "I look at the social worker, and I say, 'Do you believe we've done everything we can to prevent this child from being removed from the family?'
"I am very comfortable in the integrity of the DA's office and the (SRS) workers... because I am constantly asking them if they believe it is appropriate," he said.
"Are there inaccuracies in these affidavits sometimes? Sure. It's because of the tight time frames and limitations.... But it doesn't mean that anybody's being bullied and anybody's being dishonest."
State Rep. Mike O'Neal, R-Hutchinson, a lawyer and the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said of Jordan's comments: "At a minimum, it raises the question as to whether the affidavit... is truly representative of the caseworker who has signed the affidavit. That doesn't necessarily put into doubt" all information in the affidavit, O'Neal said.
An affidavit is a "sworn, legal document signed by one person," he said. "So it needs to reflect truly what that person is swearing to."
O'Neal called Jordan's comments "refreshing" because of their apparent candor.
"I applaud him for recognizing (a concern) and saying we need to do something about it."
State Rep. Jim Morrison, R-Colby, said concerns about child custody investigations aren't limited to Sedgwick County.
Morrison said he has heard that social workers around the state have at times felt overly pressured by prosecutors.
So he wasn't surprised to hear of Jordan's comments, Morrison said.
"I think it's good that we have a secretary (of SRS) that is as frustrated as a lot of people who are complaining," he said.
Reach Tim Potter at 268-6684 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Source: Wichita Eagle
Addendum: Two videos posted to YouTube give the actual words of Don Johnson. We regret we can not be sure of the authenticity of these postings.