Sunday, February 13, 2011

A.G. inquiry: 'ill will' led SRS worker to ignore abuse

Posted on Sun, Feb. 13, 2011
The Wichita Eagle
A Kansas attorney general's investigation found that a state social worker disliked a Coffeyville couple and chose to do "nothing to protect" their 23-month-old granddaughter before she was murdered in 2008.
The investigation concluded that veteran SRS social worker Linda Gillen treated abuse reports involving the couple's grandchildren very differently from others and failed to take steps that her agency required in child abuse cases.
The investigation is coming to light now as part of a lawsuit brought by the couple, Larry and Mary Crosetto.
Last year the Crosettos filed a lawsuit in federal court claiming that Gillen held a decades-old grudge against them and that it cost them their granddaughter's life.
They say Gillen refused to act on repeated reports of abuse in the months before their granddaughter, Brooklyn Coons, died.
The lawsuit — which offers a rare look at inner workings of the child protection system — says Gillen had a "personal animus, bordering on hatred" toward the couple.
The Crosettos say that the "animus led to the tragic and totally preventable death" of the toddler.
In January 2008 — more than two months after the Crosettos began pressing Gillen to have the children removed from their home — Brooklyn died.
Authorities said the toddler suffered brain injuries after being beaten or violently shaken. Her father's meth-addicted girlfriend, Melissa Wells, was later convicted of first-degree murder.
Last month, an SRS attorney filed a legal argument denying that Gillen is liable. Bill Miskell, spokesman for the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services (SRS), said he can't comment on the investigation but that the agency will be filing a response in court. No one from SRS, including Gillen, can comment on pending litigation, Miskell said.
Gillen has been with SRS since 1974. At the time of Brooklyn's death, she was the only licensed social worker in the Coffeyville SRS office investigating child abuse and neglect cases, documents say.
Gillen remains in that role, Miskell said.
Another tragedy
The Crosettos had been the main caregivers for Brooklyn and her 5-year-old brother when their mother, Angela Coons, the Crosettos' daughter, was attending college. She became separated from the children's father, Randy Coons.
In June 2007, the children and their mother moved to Wichita after she got a job. About two months later, Angela Coons suddenly became ill and died.
Around September 2007, the children went to the Coffeyville home of their father and Wells, his girlfriend.
As a child, Wells had been in SRS custody, and Gillen was a social worker assigned to her case, the lawsuit says.
The Crosettos' lawyer is Randy Rathbun, a former U.S. attorney.
A striking difference
In an affidavit signed Jan. 24, Camie Russell, former director of the attorney general's Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation Unit, said that as director she reviewed about a dozen child abuse cases handled by Gillen in Montgomery County. Russell said she found a clear difference in the way Gillen treated Brooklyn's case.
In the other cases, Gillen was "very hands on," Russell said. "She undertook actions without court order based upon suggestions made by the county attorney or the district judge."
But, Russell said, "As to the Coons children she was very hands off."
Russell's investigation concluded that Gillen held "some animus or ill will toward the Crosettos," according to her affidavit.
The affidavit, based on a 2009 investigative report by Russell, said Gillen denied "that anyone blocked her from taking action."
The investigation found that Gillen "elected to do nothing to protect" the Crosettos' grandchildren.
The Crosettos say Gillen became unhappy with them in 1982 when they adopted their daughter — Brooklyn's mother — when she was an infant.
The Crosettos said they excluded Gillen, the social worker, from their efforts to adopt their daughter. They said they reported Gillen's failure to complete a home study, which led a judge to rebuke her. As a result, the Crosettos said, she became angry at them.
The couple "totally circumvented" Gillen from another adoption in 1985, "which further angered Gillen," court documents say.
"This hatred was so immense that Gillen could not hide it — so much so that a Coffeyville police officer noted it while the Crosettos' granddaughter lay in a Tulsa hospital bed fighting for her life," the Crosettos' attorney said in the recent filings.
Russell's affidavit says that when Gillen met with police and the Crosettos the day after Brooklyn went to the hospital, "Gillen's animosity toward Larry Crosetto was so obvious that Detective George indicated that she wishes that she would have recorded the interaction."
Repeated concerns
The lawsuit claims that before Brooklyn's death, "Gillen stonewalled the Crosettos' attempts to protect their grandchildren, arguing that it was her duty to do whatever she could to 'keep the family together.' The 'family' in this case consisted of Brook, her brother .. , their natural father, Randy Coons, who at the time was living in squalor with his meth-addicted girlfriend, Melissa Wells, and her two children," one of whom had been the subject of a call to the SRS reporting center.
The Crosettos argue that Gillen had a number of reasons to have Brooklyn and her brother removed from Wells' home:
* An August 2006 report to the SRS Protection Report Center or hotline alleging Wells abused her own son.
That boy's grandfather reported that the child had two nickel-size, black-and-blue bruises above the diaper line and a fading bruise under his right eye. Wells said the bruises came from falls, but her son's grandfather said he didn't believe her. He also reported that she smoked marijuana a lot, possibly with the child present.
* A September 2007 report from Brooklyn's day care provider to the SRS report center that Brooklyn was being abused.
In an affidavit, the former day care provider, Allison Horner, said that when she saw Brooklyn that September, "I was shocked by her condition. She had a black eye, a busted lip with stitches and random bruising all over her body. She was not the same little girl I had cared for just a few months earlier. ... It was very plain to me she was being abused."
Horner called the SRS reporting center and gave details about Brooklyn's injuries and other information that would allow SRS to follow up.
The report to the SRS hotline should have gone to Gillen "but is now nowhere to be found," the lawsuit says.
* A November 2007 report from a school to the SRS center that Wells was suspected of abusing Brooklyn's brother.
Gillen noted in a report that the boy came to school with a 2-inch-by-2-inch red mark on his face.
"Wells confessed to Gillen that she had struck CSC (Brooklyn's brother) in anger leaving bruising that required icing at school later that day. Predictably, Gillen found the complaint 'unsubstantiated,' " the lawsuit says.
* Repeated calls from Larry Crosetto to Gillen "detailing the abuse of his grandchildren."
* "Deplorable living conditions in Wells' home that Gillen refused to investigate. She then lied to Crosetto about having visited there to get him to stop bothering her about it," the lawsuit says.
* Evidence of drug use by Wells from two sources.
* A Dec. 24, 2007, letter from a doctor to the local SRS office — which Gillen says she didn't get — reporting that Brooklyn had bruises that should be investigated.
* On Dec. 28, 2007, Crosetto offered photos of bruises on the children.
That same day, Crosetto told Gillen "that her refusal to do her job was going to end up causing the death of one of his grandchildren. ... Three weeks later, Brook was dead," the lawsuit says.
SRS worker defended
In a document filed early last month, SRS staff attorney Maureen Redeker defended Gillen, saying:
* "There is no evidence of Ms. Gillen's intent towards Crosettos."
* Gillen "is not liable for private violence."
* There is no evidence that Gillen's conduct "created or increased the danger" to Brooklyn.
* The risk to Brooklyn "was not obvious and known" to Gillen.
* Gillen "did not act in conscious disregard of a known risk" to Brooklyn.
* Gillen's "conduct was not conscience shocking."
A list of 'failures'
Regardless of whether Gillen is liable, she failed on the Coons case in multiple ways, court documents say.
Russell, the former attorney general's official, said in an affidavit that Gillen failed to take actions required by her agency. Russell cited five areas:
* "Failure to note prior SRS involvement with Wells ... ."
* "Failure to take photos of the child to document the injury."
* "Failure to complete a home visit; the site where the maltreatment occurred."
* "Failure to report Wells' confession of intentionally hitting CSC (Brooklyn's brother, in the face) to law enforcement."
* "Failure to interview additional significant caretakers of the children."
Russell's investigation noted a lingering question: What happened to the letter the doctor wrote addressing bruises and other marks on Brooklyn about three weeks before she died?
The doctor sent the letter to the Coffeyville SRS office. The doctor's letter "noted concern of abuse, listed marks and bruising, referenced records of past injury... and requested SRS look into child's environment and provide a report back to him," Russell's review said.
Gillen should have received it, but there is no record of it being received, Russell's affidavit says.
Gillen's role crucial
Russell found that the role of SRS and Gillen was crucial.
"Law enforcement, the school, the doctor, a daycare provider, and others interviewed indicated that they were under the impression that SRS/Gillen was investigating and addressing the Coons abuse and neglect concerns."
Larry Crosetto tried other routes besides Gillen and the doctor.
On Nov. 5, 2007, he called Fire Chief Greg Allen to voice concerns about living conditions at Wells' home. Allen inspected the home's exterior and left a note asking permission to check inside but never heard back from Wells or Randy Coons.
On Dec. 12, 2007, when Crosetto sought help from school district officials, he was told "that the school could do no more as the matter was in the hands of the SRS."
Crosetto feared that if his grandchildren were removed from their father, he probably would not see them again. But after his grandson was struck in the face, he decided his "fears were insignificant compared to the welfare of the children," and from then on "he really started to push Gillen to protect the children," the lawsuit says.
Crosetto called Gillen on Nov. 6, 14, 15 and 16. "She refused to return my calls," his recently filed affidavit says.
On Nov. 20, Gillen "finally accepted a call from me. ... I tried to discuss my concerns about bruising on Brooklyn and the suspected drug use of Melissa Wells. Gillen said those were police matters and refused to discuss them."
Reach Tim Potter at 316-268-6684 or
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WICHITA, Kan. (AP) - A federal judge has refused to dismiss a lawsuit filed by grandparents accusing a social worker of failing to protect a toddler who was beaten to death by her father's girlfriend.
U.S. District Judge Monti Belot ruled Friday that maternal grandparents Larry and Mary Crosetto had enough facts to overcome the state's claim of qualified immunity for social worker Linda Gillen.
The Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services argued that Gillen had "no duty to intervene" after she investigated a report claiming abuse and neglect of the 23-month-old Coffeyville girl, who died in 2008 as a result of head injuries.
The Crosettos sued Gillen in January, accusing her of gross negligence for not protecting their granddaughter despite repeated complaints alleging abuse. The suit does not name the agency as a defendant.

SRS: Social worker had no duty to protect child who later died

Posted on Sun, May. 16, 2010

The Wichita Eagle

An attorney for SRS also contends that because the girl was not in the agency's custody, the state owed no duty to protect her.
The arguments revolve around the case of 23-month-old Brooklyn Coons. Her father's meth-addicted girlfriend was convicted of murder after the girl died from brain injuries caused by her being violently shaken. Melissa Wells Coons is serving a life sentence.
Brooklyn's grandparents, Larry and Mary Crosetto, say they met with Linda Gillen, a veteran SRS social worker based in Coffeyville, and told her they thought Brooklyn was being abused and could be killed if she wasn't removed from the home of her father and his girlfriend. The Crosettos say they offered Gillen evidence but that she refused to act because of a grudge against them.
The legal argument that the social worker had no duty to protect Brooklyn doesn't sit well with her grandfather.
"I thought this was her job," said Larry Crosetto, who is suing Gillen in federal court.
The SRS arguments are in response to the lawsuit the grandparents filed in January. The lawsuit seeks more than $75,000 in damages.
"What we hope to do is get SRS to act in these situations ... and prevent it from happening to another family," Crosetto said.
Brooklyn's death is one of several across the state where families have accused the state Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services (SRS) of failing to protect children who were killed.
Child abuse or neglect has taken a heavy toll in Wichita, where police investigated eight child homicides in 2008. Seven of the eight deaths occurred from abuse or neglect by caregivers, police said.
In the past six months, several more suspicious child deaths have occurred in the Wichita area, raising more questions about the SRS role in protecting children.
SRS answers suit
In federal court documents defending Gillen, the social worker, SRS staff attorney Danny Baumgartner cites a U.S. Supreme Court case finding no constitutional duty of government to protect a child from violence committed by an individual.
Baumgartner also argues that Brooklyn was not in SRS custody, so SRS owed no duty to protect her.
The SRS defense is based partly on the idea that while government has a duty to the public at large, it can't be held liable for protecting one person from another individual unless special circumstances exist.
The situation limits government's exposure to liability.
But Larry Crosetto said the argument that government has no duty to the individual doesn't seem right to him.
"If it is the responsibility of government to protect the public, who protects the individual?"
The Crosettos' attorney, Randy Rathbun, argues in court documents that Gillen held a years-old grudge against the Crosettos that caused her to ignore reports of abuse from them and not follow her duty to protect the girl from her father's meth-addicted girlfriend, Melissa Wells Coons.
Brooklyn's mother, Angela Coons, died at age 24 in 2007 after a sudden illness. Brooklyn's death was the Crosettos' second loss.
The grandparents' lawsuit says that Gillen refused to accept photographs showing bruises on the girl a month before her death, which Gillen denies in court documents.
Court documents say, without elaboration, that the Crosettos believe Gillen held a grudge over their adoption of their daughter Angela years earlier.
SRS says Gillen has been employed with the agency since 1974.
The SRS response says Gillen denies having a grudge.
The SRS defense
In a court filing responding to the lawsuit, SRS attorney Baumgartner said (referring to the child, Brooklyn, as "B.I.C."):
* "Even assuming the imminence of danger, and even assuming Ms. Gillen knew about this danger (which Defendant denies), Ms. Gillen was under no duty to protect B.I.C. from a danger Ms. Gillen did not create."
* "Even assuming the 'animus' (which Defendant denies) Plaintiffs claim Ms. Gillen had against them, Ms. Gillen was under no duty to protect B.I.C. from third parties."
The SRS response says that the Crosettos seem to contend that once they met with Gillen about their concerns over Brooklyn, "their hands (and the Police's hands) were tied. This is far from the situation."
The document adds: "Ms. Gillen feels for Plaintiffs' loss, but with all due respect to Plaintiffs there is no Constitutional remedy for them here."
As a state employee, Gillen is entitled to "qualified immunity," SRS says.
Grandparents' case
In the court papers representing the Crosettos, their attorney Rathbun says, "This is not just another case of ... an overworked SRS employee and a report that fell through the cracks. Linda Gillen knew and hated Mr. Crosetto."
Rathbun also said that Gillen "carried a powerful animus that resulted in her refusal to follow her duty and protect" the girl from her father's girlfriend.
The Crosettos' filings provide this timeline:
* On Jan. 17, 2008, Coffeyville police responding to a 911 call found Brooklyn unresponsive and in the care of the girlfriend. Police saw head injuries and bruises on the girl.
* The next day, police placed three other children from the home of Melissa Wells Coons and Randy Coons, Brooklyn's father, into protective custody because of "deplorable" living conditions and the injuries to Brooklyn.
* Three days after the 911 call, Brooklyn died in a hospital.
Before the 911 call, Coffeyville police did not take steps to protect Brooklyn because they "reasonably believed that the defendant (Gillen) was undertaking her statutory obligations to safeguard" Brooklyn and her brother, a court document says.
The Crosettos contend that Gillen took it upon herself to monitor Brooklyn's situation — causing other agencies that could have protected the girl to defer to SRS.
Recently, Brooklyn's father pleaded no contest to aggravated endangerment of a child. He faces sentencing July 1.
Gillen remains a social worker with SRS, the agency says.
Reach Tim Potter at 316-268-6684 or
Read more:


More on this story to be found on the following links:
Coffeyville couple sues SRS worker after granddaughter's beating death
January 24, 2010
The Wichita Eagle
Read more:

SRS seeks dismissal of lawsuit filed by grandparents
March 11, 2010
The Wichita Eagle
Read more:

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