Saturday, August 18, 2007

Hardin County social workers are not held accountable

Grand jury declines to indict social service workers
Yetter, Deborah. Courier-Journal, July 31, 2007.

A grand jury in Hardin County has declined to indict any state child - welfare workers over allegations that some of them lied in court, falsified records and otherwise abused their authority.

The grand jury, in a report released yesterday, found too much time had elapsed to charge anyone with criminal violations in 18 cases it reviewed of workers' conduct in child abuse and neglect cases.

But in the harshly worded report, grand jurors called for more outside oversight of the state's child-welfare system and tougher laws to deal with errant workers, noting they have "potentially devastating power" over children and parents.

The six-page report also criticized the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services for not acting sooner to sanction employees involved in misconduct.

The findings that triggered the grand jury investigation were contained in a January report by the cabinet's inspector general. That report cited arbitrary and — in some cases — deliberate mistreatment by workers of families at risk of losing children in abuse or neglect cases.

"We found it both disturbing and shocking that these few employees were able to act in such a manner toward the families involved, as well as the court system, without any significant disciplinary measures being taken," the report said.

Mark Washington, the state official in charge of social services, said in a statement yesterday that the cabinet has been investigating the allegations and is about to act.

"The cabinet will finalize personnel actions in August," the statement said. But some people were disappointed with the lack of criminal charges yesterday, including Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, and David Richart, director of the National Institute on Children, Youth and Families in Louisville.

The two child advocacy organizations released reports last year that alleged widespread problems among some workers in the Lincoln Trail social - service region that then included Hardin and seven surrounding counties.

The lack of criminal charges "gives everyone a pass, and I think that's regrettable," said Richart, who has worked with some families in the region to try to help them resolve disputes with the state.

Richart said he talked to several of the families yesterday and they were disappointed but didn't want to speak publicly.

"They just feel like the justice system let them down," he said.

Brooks said the results leave him wondering how the state can guarantee "kids and families are treated consistently, equitably and fairly."

Hardin Commonwealth's Attorney Christopher G. Shaw, who led the grand jury investigation, said he and grand jurors also were frustrated that they could not identify any felony violations, which have no statute of limitations and could have been prosecuted.

Any possible criminal violations appeared to be misdemeanors and were outside the 12-month statute of limitations for prosecuting lesser offenses, he said.

"It was frustrating and depressing," Shaw said

He said the grand jurors took the unusual step of deciding to issue a report because of their frustration and because of the publicity generated after the cabinet's inspector general issued a public report citing wrongdoing by some workers and referring them for possible charges to the grand jury.

"We did everything we could do," Shaw said.

Neither the grand jury nor the inspector general's report identified any employees by name , and there were no further specifics in the case. In his statement, Washington said the cabinet only obtained names of employees suspected of misconduct in April from the inspector general, which acts as an independent watchdog. It then began investigating, in accordance with state personnel law, he said.

The grand juror's report noted that criminal laws dealing with employee misconduct in child-welfare cases provide few serious sanctions. It called for "clearly defined felony criminal penalties."

By law, child-welfare cases are confidential and outside public scrutiny. The grand jury report suggested that "perhaps a separate agency outside the cabinet should be established and given the power to review and, if necessary, remove those employees" found to have abused their authority.

Brooks said he believes the state is working to improve oversight of employees and consistency of decisions in child-welfare cases. A blue - ribbon commission formed last year is studying ways to improve the system.

But he said the inability of the grand jury to bring charges despite alleged abuses detailed in the inspector general's report leaves him concerned that there's no clear way to hold workers accountable.

"It should not bring a lot of comfort to the families in Hardin County," Brooks said.

Reporter Deborah Yetter can be reached at (502) 582-4228.


Post a Comment

<< Home