Monday, March 28, 2011

Rep. Pete DeGraaf, R-Mulvane, was among legislators who asked SRS to make available to them the files of foster care children in instances where parents have authorized access. DeGraaf said he is concerned that social workers are too eager to keep families separated. But children's advocates say giving legislators access to sensitive personal information about children in state custody and letting them use it as they see fit invites violations of privacy.
By Dave Ranney
KHI News Service
March 28, 2011
TOPEKA — In a move that has raised alarm among some children’s advocates, the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services has loosened its restrictions on sharing sensitive information about children in state custody.
As a result of the agency’s recent policy change, parents whose children have become state wards now have the option of signing a one-page form that gives state legislators unrestricted access to information in their family’s case file.
Legislators, in turn, are free to share the file’s contents with whomever they deem appropriate.
As a result of the policy change, information about a child once considered highly confidential could be made public, though legislators currently most interested in the files say that is unlikely.
The new policy took effect Feb. 10.
Legislator welcomes changeEven before the change, a parent could sign a form giving SRS officials permission to discuss a family's case with legislators. But social workers decided what information from the file would be shared. And legislators were not given documents or copies from the files but verbal briefings.
The new policy directs SRS to give legislators, "open and complete access to any and all information they possess," on the parent who signed the form and their children.
A parent is not allowed to authorize release of information on another parent, an ex-spouse, for example.
Rep. Pete DeGraaf, R-Mulvane, who pushed for the new policy so he and other lawmakers could double check the decision making of SRS, its contractors and the courts, said he welcomed the change.
"I found it was hard to get information," before the change, he said. "I kept being told ‘We can’t give that to you.’"
DeGraaf, who works as a financial consultant, said he first asked the agency for access to specific case information after being approached by constituents who had lost custody of their children.
"My interest is in serving my constituents and seeing that the children get the best possible treatment," he said. "We (legislators) have heard a lot about this at (legislative) forums. In fact, it’s the number one issue. It comes up repeatedly."
DeGraaf, also pastor at the Jesus the Good Shepherd Church in Mulvane, said he asked SRS Secretary Rob Siedlecki to consider revising the information request form so that any lawmaker approached by a parent could obtain a release and access the full case file.
"The previous administration, basically, said ‘We’re not going to give you any information we don’t have to. We really don’t want you to get involved. We’re only going to give you the information that makes what we did look right,’" DeGraaff said. "What the current administration is saying is ‘We’re not presuming that we’re right or wrong. We want transparency and if you’re hearing that we or one of our contractors has done wrong, we want to look into it.’"
DeGraaf said he’s currently investigating two cases in which children were removed from their homes and placed in foster care.
"I have three or four more (cases) that I’m interested in pursuing," he said.
Though the release form would allow him to, DeGraaf said he has no interest in releasing to anyone else any of the family-specific information that he’s gathered. Though he’s reviewed some of the families’ hard-copy files, he said he’s not had copies made. Nor does he keep any of the information on his computer.
"We need to do our best to protect the privacy of all individuals involved, particularly the children," he said.
Legislative concernsLast year, the House Federal and State Affairs Committee heard testimony from several parents and grandparents who accused social workers of lying, trampling their rights, and profiting from their families’ troubles.
Similar clearanceSince the early 1980s, there has been a rarely used state law that allows select legislators access to police investigation files dealing with child abuse or neglect. That access is limited to members of the House and Senate budget, judiciary, corrections, and post audit committees, and to members of any joint committee that deals with issues involving children and families.
Under state law, legislators are not to discuss information from the police files in public unless two-thirds of the members on one of the empowered committees agree to do so. Those who violate the law are subject to discipline or censure by their respective chambers.
Social workers who violate confidentiality are subject to dismissal and can lose their license.
Then-SRS Secretary Don Jordan said "all but one" of the accusations had been investigated and found to be groundless.
But DeGraaf said his own investigations have led him to believe that SRS and the courts are more committed to keeping children in foster care than in reuniting families.
"I see the system putting up all these hoops that parents have to jump through before they can get their kids back, hoping they’ll just give up," DeGraaf said. "I’ve seen instances where a parent is told they’ll have to go through drug and alcohol rehabilitation or anger management classes. But when you look in their file, there’s nothing in there about anger management or drug use. They’re just hoops."
DeGraaf said he suspects that some judges’ foster-care decisions — he doesn’t know how many — are based on bad information.
"A judge’s decision is only as good as the information he or she has to work with," he said. "Sometimes, that information is peppered with speculation, false accusations and misleading statements."
The state’s foster care system, he said, needs an objective overseer.
"My concern is that we’re not doing a better job of getting these kids back into the hands of their parents and helping parents get rehabilitated," he said. "There are times, I think, that we hold parents (whose children are in foster) to higher standard than we put on the average parent."
According to SRS reports, more than 5,100 Kansas children live in foster homes. The average time in state custody is almost 19 months.
Typically, children are removed from their homes due to neglect, physical abuse, a parent’s alcohol or drug abuse, or a parent’s inability to cope with aberrant behaviors.
Signing a releaseSRS officials say that since the policy change, four parents have signed release forms so that legislators could review their children’s cases. They said the policy was changed to accommodate requests from lawmakers and to consolidate various release forms into a single document. The new policy and form were vetted by the agency's legal department, said SRS spokesman Bill Miskell.
Sen. Dick Kelsey, R-Goddard, said he’s also investigated foster care decisions when asked to by parents, but not since the new policy became effective.
"My experience has been that when you ask them to sign a release, about 50 percent of them back off," Kelsey said. "They only want you to know one side of the story. In the other 50 percent, a lot of times, what I’ve found is that things have a way of getting stuck. The paperwork gets jammed somewhere along the way, or the lawyers have a hard time scheduling a meeting. It’s not anything intentional or malicious."
Still, Kelsey said, state welfare officials sometimes make mistakes and he, along with DeGraaf, pushed for the changes.
"These things are always messy, they’re never clear cut," he said. "There are always decisions that have to be made and sometimes SRS makes a bad call. Usually when that happens, SRS sees that it’s made a mistake, the mistake gets fixed and we move on. But there are times when social workers don’t see that a mistake has been made. The greater problem is (a legislator) operating with only half the information."
He said he doubted that legislators would misuse the information from a family’s file.
"I don’t see that happening," Kelsey said.
Among the information covered by the new release form:

• Investigations of reports of alleged abuse or neglect;

• Medical and psychiatric histories;

• Drug test results;

• Credit reports;

• Divorce and child-custody proceedings.
Concerns raisedBill Miskell, an SRS spokesman, acknowledged the new form has "generated a number of concerns," from social workers, attorneys and child advocates.
In response, he said, the agency last week revised the form, adding a sentence stating that the parent at any time could revoke "in writing" the previous agreement to have the information released.
But that revision has not eased the concerns of social workers and advocates who said they fear private information would find its way into the wrong hands or perhaps be widely disseminated. With the Internet, information can be very widely and quickly shared.
"I think this is really overreaching," said Betsy Cauble, a social work professor at Kansas State University, referring to the new policy. "Do you really want a legislator to know that a child was sexually molested for 10 years? You want to let a legislator decide to make that information public?"
"The thing you have to realize is that children who’ve been abused and neglected have been treated as non-persons. They had no protection. They are vulnerable, they’ve been exploited, they’ve been damaged," said Karen Wakefield, director of clinical services at Kansas Children’s Service League, an agency that deals with foster children. "To violate confidentiality or to make public information about what’s happened to them traumatizes them — it re-traumatizes them, it causes great pain.
"Just imagine the pain of being 16 and getting along well in high school, and then having a legislator reveal in a newspaper article that your father molested you when you were five years old," she said. "The message, once again, is you have no rights, you’re not a person, no one cares. The damage that causes is significant."
Not all the informationDespite the policy change, some perhaps critical information about foster-care cases, would remain unavailable to legislators.
In Kansas, district court judges — not legislators — decide whether a child belongs in foster care, when a child will be allowed to return home and whether a parent’s parental rights are terminated.
Court records relating to any particular foster care case would remain effectively sealed.
"Release of any CINC (Child in Need of Care) record would require the permission or an order of the court," said Mark Gleeson, director of programs at the state Office of Judicial Administration.
The court decisions, though, are generally based on reports from SRS or one of its four private-sector, foster-care contractors: TFI Family Services, KVC Behavioral Health Care, Youthville and St. Francis Community Services.
Legally, the contractors’ files belong to SRS and with the policy change could now be shared with legislators.
"Because we’re a contractor, our files are SRS’ files and we would share them with SRS, certainly," said Jenny Wolff, communications director at KVC Behavioral Health.
The form also gives legislators access to files at the Kansas Juvenile Justice Authority as well as those held by attorneys representing the parent and/or the child.
The new release form, Miskell said, does not guarantee a legislator access to information that’s not in an SRS-controlled file, even if that information is referenced in the file. For example, the foster child’s case file may note that the parent received counseling for anger management or substance abuse. Those counseling records would be with the therapist or counselor and not necessarily available to legislators.
"Social workers are taught that all interaction is confidential with three exceptions — if I suspect someone is a threat to self or others, if I suspect child or elder abuse, or if my records are subpoenaed," Cauble said. "Social workers are not privileged, like doctors or lawyers.
"But a drug and alcohol counselor is not going tell a legislator what was said during a counseling session, a social worker isn’t going to tell a legislator whether someone is HIV positive," Cauble said. "It doesn’t matter what the form says."

New foster-care release form

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