Government & Politics

Secrecy inside child welfare system can kill: ‘God help the children of Kansas’

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Why so secret, Kansas?

Kansas may be the most secretive state in the country, a Kansas City Star investigation shows. And it’s only gotten worse under Gov. Sam Brownback.

Clint Blansett’s 10-year-old son had been dead just a few days when a social worker from the state knocked on the family’s door in south-central Kansas.

She wasn’t there to offer condolences after Caleb’s death or ask about his sister, Blansett said.

She wanted him to sign a form saying he wouldn’t talk about his son’s death or the Kansas Department for Children and Families. No details about contact the agency had with the family before Caleb’s mom smashed his head with a rock while he slept and then stabbed him seven times.

“It was a gag order,” Blansett said. “She was there for DCF; she wasn’t there for me, she wasn’t there for my daughter. She was there to ensure that I wouldn’t speak to the press. That was her only concern.”

What Caleb’s father faced that day in December 2014 is what other parents and Kansas legislators say they’ve battled for years: An agency charged with protecting kids instead focused on protecting itself. An agency where a former high-level DCF supervisor told The Star she was instructed not to document anything after a child’s death and to shred notes after meetings so attorneys and reporters couldn’t get them through open records requests.

An agency where even lawmakers insist DCF officials are intentionally misleading them and providing information the Legislature can’t trust.

In the end, Kansas children continue to die without a public review of what contact state social workers had with the families — whether they did enough and whether policies and procedures were followed.

“Secrecy is killing children,” said Dianne Keech, who knows DCF well after serving as a deputy director for two years. Before that, she spent more than 16 years as a court services officer in Wyandotte County assessing child-in-need-of-care cases.

Keech left the agency after she said she was told to shred notes after meetings about critical cases. She also said she wasn’t able to implement a system-wide review of abuse and neglect cases because administrators didn’t want mistakes put in writing.

“I couldn’t sleep because there are so many child deaths and if we don’t review them right, we’re not going to make any changes,” Keech said. “More children will get hurt. … Nobody wanted to change anything. The fight was so big and I felt so small.”

In a months-long investigation into the secrecy that permeates Kansas government and how it harms residents, The Star found a pervasive effort inside DCF to hide behind privacy laws and internal procedures to keep the public from knowing how it operates. Those practices are particularly acute in cases where children are seriously injured or killed by parents and guardians who were known to the agency.

For the past year, DCF has refused to answer questions on topics ranging from open records and the death of specific children to runaways in foster care. During the course of The Star’s reporting on widespread problems within the agency, DCF Secretary Phyllis Gilmore announced her retirement effective Dec. 1.

The Star sent a long list of questions to Gilmore last week. In response, the agency sent three paragraphs and did not address Blansett’s case.

“First and foremost, the Kansas Department for Children and Families (DCF) is committed to transparency and has spent a considerable amount of time responding to your requests for information, which DCF is not legally obligated to do,” the agency said.

Social workers in the field say they know how important image is to the department. Sarah Coats worked several years as a social worker for one of Kansas’ top child welfare contractors. She said she was fired after she tried to create a union for workers and leaked information about high caseloads.

Now running for the Kansas House as a Democrat, Coats told The Star that when a critical incident happens — including a child’s death or serious injury — a worker is required to fill out a “critical incident” form. It includes a box to check: Is this incident one that may draw public, legislative or media concern?

“Is that the worry when we have a child die or nearly die?” Coats said. “Is our first worry, ‘Will this catch media attention?’

“There’s a reason why they hide what they are doing and why they want to cover it up,” she said. “But if we never admit to the mistakes we make, we’ll never be better. We can’t sweep it under the rug when children are dying.”

evan brewer
Evan Brewer in a family photo. The Wichita Eagle

‘It’s cover your ass’

The cries for change have hit a fever pitch after five high-profile child deaths in five years and after three audits — requested and approved by the Legislature — exposed flaws in the foster care system and a desperate need for more accountability.

Two months ago, this headline came from Wichita:

Missing Kansas boy, 3, found encased in concrete

Evan Brewer, who loved Batman, lived with his mother, Miranda Miller, and her boyfriend. Miller and Evan’s father, Carlo Brewer, had been locked in a custody battle.

Concerned about his son’s welfare, Carlo Brewer had reached out to DCF. And though abuse and neglect hotline calls were made in the year before the boy’s death, he wasn’t removed from his mother’s home.

“From what we understand, they (DCF) never saw him, and they said he was fine,” said Carl Brewer, Evan’s grandfather and a former mayor of Wichita who is running for Kansas governor. “They still closed his case.”

Miller refused to talk with DCF and police on numerous occasions. Her boyfriend is accused of threatening Carlo Brewer when he went to the home asking about Evan.

DCF officials say they cannot comment on the case. Police have not released how Evan died and no one has been charged in his death.

Though Carl Brewer said he’s always been concerned about the safety of children, it’s an even bigger priority in his campaign now. DCF — as well as other agencies — must be more open, he said.

“We haven’t held them accountable,” Brewer said. “They need to do their job and do it correctly. And if they do that, they don’t need to hide anything or create an environment where there’s not transparency.”

A legislative task force has met three times since August trying to determine how to fix the troubled system. Lawmakers insist they don’t think DCF is giving them accurate insight and information.

“My frustration is it appears that things get hidden,” said Sen. Barbara Bollier, a Mission Hills Republican. “I’m not convinced that they are totally forthcoming.”

Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat, agrees.

“There’s a real sense that what the agency is telling us is not right or not complete,” Kelly said. “It’s nearly impossible to get information we trust. … Obviously, in order to fix something, you have to know what’s going on. You have to be able to get under the hood, see what is working and what’s not working.”

When told of lawmakers’ concerns, DCF said in its response to The Star: “We strongly disagree with any assertion by anyone that DCF is stonewalling and misleading.”

Legislators say that during one recent task force meeting an attorney with DCF’s legal department “went in circles” and didn’t answer direct questions. Also, Kelly said, agency officials continue to tell lawmakers that Kansas’ child welfare system ranks among the country’s safest in the Child & Family Services Review, which measures how families fare in each state and whether the agency complies with federal requirements.

“In some ways it’s surreal,” Kelly said. “We are sitting there talking about a 7-year-old or a 5-year-old who died a torturous death in the system and the system’s response to that is, ‘Look at all these blue ribbons we’ve won.’ Not, ‘What can we do to make sure it doesn’t happen again?’ 

Social workers for DCF and its two foster care contractors have told lawmakers and The Star that high caseloads at times make it difficult to do the job. Laura Bullock, who has worked for two state contractors in the past, said at one point she had as many as 43 foster kids in her caseload. Another social worker said she had as many as 57 children at one time.

Best practice, Bullock said, would be if a foster care worker had 15 to 19 children. With that many, it’s possible to complete each monthly visit and do the case plans, court hearings and meetings with families.

“Then when something happens, they (child welfare officials) look at the worker and say ‘Why weren’t you doing such and such?’ ” Bullock said. “It’s like, ‘Look, if you would stop giving us so much on our plates we maybe could have prevented this.’ 

After the brutal death of Adrian Jones, a 7-year-old from Kansas City, Kan., whose body was fed to pigs in the fall of 2015, several lawmakers said that sources inside the system privately told them DCF had received several hotline calls about the boy. However, those legislators said they couldn’t, at the time, get that information directly from the child welfare agency.

Neither could Adrian’s maternal grandmother, Judy Conway.

“Mentally and physically it has worn on me every single day,” Conway said. “And I’ve had to live through it every day to try to get answers.”

It wasn’t until nearly 1 1/2 years after Adrian’s death made international headlines, after his father and stepmother were sentenced to life in prison, that DCF released any information. And even then, the agency released a disorganized file of 2,000 pages that one advocate said looked as if someone had thrown all the records up in the air and then haphazardly gathered them and said, “Here you go.”

“It’s like it was disorganized on purpose,” said Lori Ross, a longtime Missouri child welfare advocate who recently has gone to Topeka several times demanding change in the Kansas system. She said it took her several hours to organize the records so she could understand what happened with Adrian.

Ross, who has reviewed child welfare cases for decades, said it appears the Kansas system failed to do adequate investigations of hotline calls in Adrian’s case and had interns doing interviews instead of licensed workers. She worries that if missteps like that aren’t addressed in a timely manner, more children could fall through “holes in the safety net.”

“There are risks out there and you can’t make progress when someone says, ‘I can’t talk to you about that, that’s confidential,’ ” Ross said. “And really, what it feels like to me is that the secrecy in Kansas doesn’t feel like it’s protecting children and families’ privacy. It feels like it’s cover your ass.

“God help the children of Kansas.”

Adrian Jones Courtesy of Judy Conway

‘Not a disgruntled husband’

In the 10 years before Caleb’s death, 81 Kansas children had died from abuse and neglect.

Clint Blansett still wonders: Had those cases been examined and lessons learned, could it have changed how workers treated his concerns? Would the investigations into hotline calls have been more extensive?

“What did they do in those cases?” Blansett said. “For someone to sit there and say ‘no you can’t look at our records,’ there is something wrong. There is something so obviously wrong with that. What is there to hide?”

Seven months before his ex-wife killed Caleb, Blansett told a DCF caseworker he was worried. At the time, he was working out of state for periods at a time and feared that his son and daughter, Cadence, were being neglected and weren’t safe with their mother in Wellington, Kan.

“I wasn’t a disgruntled husband,” Blansett said. “I told her (the caseworker) about the drugs and the men and kids calling me at all times of the night.”

A few days after Blansett spoke to the caseworker, he said he got a letter saying the complaint was unsubstantiated.

Clint and Lindsey Nicole Blansett — who goes by Nicole — had been divorced for more than a year by then. Both grew up in the same North Texas small town, and after Clint returned from the Army the two started dating and were married several years before Caleb was born.

After about 13 years of marriage, Nicole filed for divorce. When a judge gave her primary custody, Clint insisted his kids wouldn’t be safe. He knew his ex-wife, who he believes did love their two children, had a family history of bipolar disorder and wasn’t medicated. He worried about her mental health.

But no one, he said, listened to him.

His concerns weren’t the only ones DCF knew about, Blansett said. He said a convenience store clerk had reported that Nicole had mistreated Caleb while in the store. A hospital worker also called, Blansett said, concerned about the boy’s treatment by his mother after he was seen for an abscessed tooth.

About a week before Caleb’s death, DCF received another call regarding the family. Blansett said Nicole called in a report saying he was molesting the children, an allegation he believes was meant to get back at him.

DCF determined the call required more investigation and assigned an investigator.

If an investigator had promptly gone to the home, and gone inside, Blansett said, that investigator would have known that his son and daughter weren’t safe. There, on the walls and behind family pictures, Blansett said his ex-wife had written “bogus scripture” in permanent marker. Some photos had horns and mustaches drawn in marker.

“Anybody that would have walked in the house, for just a moment’s time, would have seen danger, danger, for sure,” Blansett said.

As Caleb lay dead in his bed, Nicole Blansett called 911 and told the dispatcher: “I just stabbed my son.” She later said, according to police, that “life would be full of suffering and it would be better for him to go to heaven tonight.”

Soon after Caleb’s death, DCF officials released limited information about the agency’s involvement. A Wichita television station reported that DCF first got involved with the family in 2012 and then received several hotline calls in 2014 in the months before Caleb died.

Gilmore, the DCF secretary, released a statement at the time:

“As with any child death, we are deeply saddened by this news. We are carefully reviewing this incident and our history with this family… Our hearts go out to anyone affected by this unthinkable tragedy.”

Yet, nearly three years after his son’s death, Blansett doesn’t know how extensively those complaints were investigated. And he doesn’t know if DCF did an internal review of Caleb’s case to identify any missteps or changes needed in policies or procedures or state law.

“If they did, they didn’t tell me the results,” said Blansett, who has had custody of Cadence since the day after Caleb’s death.

Though Nicole Blansett has been in prison about a year, serving a life sentence, it’s still difficult to get records regarding Caleb.

The Star requested information about his case — including hotline calls and any details about DCF involvement with the family — on Aug. 4 of this year. In the proceeding weeks and months, when asked for an update, an agency spokeswoman would say the office was working on the request.

Last week, a final email came denying the 3-month-old request on nearly a 3-year-old case. The email came on letterhead from Theresa Freed, an agency spokeswoman.

“While KSA 38-2212 (state law) allows DCF to provide procedural details of the handling of a child-in-need-care investigation when it has become public knowledge, DCF has determined that it does not have the staffing resources at this time due to its current workload of KORA requests to address such requests.”

Sign this ‘gag order’

Blansett still can’t believe that in mid-December 2014, before his son’s memorial service, a DCF social worker showed up at his door to make sure he didn’t publicly discuss the case.

“They had already failed me with Caleb, you would think her first thought would be is whether Cadence was safe, or that the house was clean, that there was food in the refrigerator,” Blansett said. “She never once asked about my little girl, who was upstairs at the time.”

While the social worker was at the home, a family member recorded what she said.

“What I need is for you to sign this, saying that you’ll follow this,” the DCF worker is heard telling Blansett.

Blansett asked the social worker what he should do because, he said, reporters had already been calling.

“Do I just tell them — reporters — that I have a gag order? I can’t say anything?” Blansett asked.

“I would say, ‘I cannot. I cannot speak, period,’ ” the social worker said. “I wouldn’t even say ‘gag order.’ 

“That’s what it is,” he told her.

“I get that. … But if you say that, then they’re going to put that on TV.”

Clint Blansett: “That’s what it is.”

She reminded him how important it was that he not talk about this case.

“The last thing I think you want to do is jeopardize — one, your daughter’s placement, and two, your criminal case. Right?” the case worker asked.

“I don’t think there’s any way I can jeopardize my criminal case. … I don’t want to lose my…”

The case worker told Blansett several times there would be consequences if he violated the order. If he talked about the case, she told him, she would go to a judge.

In the end, Blansett said, he refused to sign the order.

Karen King supervised the DCF Winfield office until September 2014, when she was let go after she reported to child welfare administrators above her that a case worker had said she had visited several children when King said she had not. Though King was no longer at the office when Caleb died, she spoke to Blansett because he’s a friend of her son. She listened to the audio recording.

“I was horrified when I heard they were threatening to take Clint’s other child,” King said. “And that was a threat. They don’t like it when they are under the microscope and they have to answer things.”

The following day — the day Blansett planned to see his son’s body — the social worker went back to see Caleb’s father. She handed him another order.

Again, Blansett recorded the conversation.

“So now it’s I can’t speak at all?” Blansett said.

“Basically, yes,” the social worker answered.

“And what would the reason be for that, I don’t understand,” Blansett said. “I’m trying to make a difference in the world with the loss of my son and you’re telling me that I can’t. Or the court is, I guess.”

“The court is doing that,” the social worker said. “I’m following it.”

Blansett explained again that he wanted to see changes made in Kansas’ child welfare system.

“Let me tell you how I see it, OK,” she said. “When you talk to the media, yeah, you give them fuel to the fire. OK. They run with it, they change it. They make it to what they want. ... If you are telling the media, what does that really do?”

“It opens the eyes of the public to let them know that there is a problem here,” Blansett said. “That this family has been let down and a life has been lost because of it.”

At one point Blansett asked what would happen if he didn’t sign. The social worker said she’d have to alert the court. She encouraged him to sign. Not just for himself, but for his daughter.

“I just think, sit back a little bit and just hold off on the media until this court order is lifted,” the social worker said. “I think you will be better off, OK, she’ll be better off.”

“I think you’ll be better off if I do,” he shot back. “I think your organization will be and that’s where your concern is. It’s not me, it’s not her. It’s your organization.”

After a short break, Blansett said he wasn’t prepared to sign the form and referred the DCF social worker to his attorney.

“I don’t feel that you are doing anything in my best interest,” Blansett said. “Being a vet and serving this nation proudly, and then you’re telling me I can’t… You are taking one of my amendments away, one of my rights, that I fought for.

“... I feel like I’m being bullied. I feel like I have no choice.”

3 Caleb and fam
Cadence, Clint and Caleb Blansett. Photo courtesy of the family.

‘Misrepresenting what happened’

When Dianne Keech worked inside Kansas’ child welfare agency, people would visit her office and she’d want to explain more about what DCF did every day for kids. The former deputy director remembers asking members of her staff to tell the visitors what their unit did.

“They couldn’t do it,” Keech said. “They looked at me like I was from Mars. They are trained from the very beginning, ‘You don’t speak. You don’t disclose. You don’t share. You don’t tell.’ 

Keech said in 2014 she was told by a member of DCF’s legal team to shred notes taken in meetings where a child death or injury was discussed. After one meeting in the summer of 2015, Keech said she saw that strategy put into action by a DCF attorney after the two had met about a child who had just been killed.

“She walked over, put them in the shredder and just walked away,” Keech said. “It was like she had won.”

Inside, Keech said, she struggled.

“I wasn’t going to be that person who got up there and testified in court and said, ‘I don’t have my notes. I was told to shred them,’ ” she said.

After each critical incident, Keech became more focused on those reviews she wanted to implement. A four-phase review, she thought, would identify weaknesses in policy or procedure or even state law. Gilmore was in support of it, Keech said.

Yet, she said, others in the agency, including administrators and attorneys, were resistant.

They didn’t want that kind of examination of the system — one with a trail, Keech said.

“What they told me in Kansas, when I was trying to get this implemented was that you don’t document anything in writing,” Keech said. “I asked, ‘Why not?’ They said, ‘Because then that’s discoverable.’ 

She said she told one of the agency’s administrators that any good lawyer would know whether policies and procedures were followed in a specific case.

“She says, ‘We don’t make it easy for them,’ ” Keech recalled.

In her two years at DCF, Keech and her team did a thorough review of one case. It was a medical neglect case regarding a child receiving family preservation services in the home. The child had asthma.

While reviewing the specifics, Keech found that the caseworker had not requested medical records. Those records would have explained how severe the asthma was and what treatment was necessary.

After she left the agency, Keech heard that a new policy had been created. In every medical neglect case, workers now must request medical records from hospitals and doctors.

Had she been able to implement a review system like that for all cases, not just medical neglect, lives could have been saved, she said.

“We could have done something good,” Keech said. “We could have turned it around. … Nobody has as their top priority protecting kids. They are protecting the governor, the secretary (of DCF), the agency and their own careers.”

DCF did not answer specific questions about Keech’s allegations.

When told what Keech said she experienced, including the directive to shred notes after critical case meetings, some lawmakers said DCF must be held accountable.

“That’s inexcusable to me — that’s fraud,” said Bollier, the Mission Hills Republican. “By not putting it all down like you’re supposed to, you’re misrepresenting what happened.”

House Minority Leader Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat and attorney who is running for governor, has worked inside the family court system. As a legislator, he’s pushed for transparency and in recent years had called for Gilmore to resign.

“The purpose of that agency, the only reason they exist, is to protect children,” Ward said. “This sounds like they couldn’t care less about that mission, and what they want is to avoid any scrutiny.

“It reinforces my belief that they don’t care about these most vulnerable children, that they’re worried about covering themselves, stonewalling and misdirecting.”

Agency ‘in full defense mode’

Earlier this year, Ward tried to make a small change he thought would ultimately help children. But, he said, DCF wouldn’t have it.

The lawmaker proposed a bill that would have strengthened a 2004 disclosure law that allows information to be released after a child’s death or serious injury. His change would make the records open unless the department could show the release would hurt the child or siblings.

“The agency went into full defense mode,” Ward said. “They painted a picture that this would destroy the system, that it would violate federal law.”

The bill didn’t go anywhere.

On paper, the state disclosure law — created after the 2002 death of an adopted child in Overland Park — appears to be among the most transparent in the country. But because of a compromise lawmakers made to get it passed, the law hasn’t exactly been a beacon.

In hindsight, former Kansas Sen. David Adkins, who sponsored the disclosure legislation, said the law probably wasn’t “worth the ink on the page.”

That’s because a provision in the law allows “affected individuals” — which includes prosecutors, police, attorneys and even parents of abused children — to petition the court to keep the child welfare records sealed. And judges typically approve.

Prosecutors have insisted that releasing child welfare information in a death involving abuse or neglect could hurt the criminal case against the suspects who injured or killed the child.

Yet, in Missouri, that hasn’t been the experience.

When 2-year-old Dominic James was killed in a southwest Missouri foster home in August 2002, it was two prosecutors in Greene County who started talking about how the child welfare system might have failed him. Under the direction of former prosecutor Darrell Moore, the office not only agreed with the release of information but publicly demanded it.

Child welfare records and internal emails eventually revealed several missteps by the Division of Family Services. And an independent investigation, complete overhaul of the system, along with the firing of top administrators, all began before the foster father who killed Dominic James was tried and convicted.

“If the system has failed in some way, we have to to know that immediately,” said Cynthia Rushefsky, a retired Greene County assistant prosecutor who was heavily involved in James’ case. “There is a bigger picture and it is important. How many kids can get hurt in the meantime?”

That’s why, she said, she and the prosecutor thought all information had to be released.

“It’s very important that they (child welfare agencies) be as open as possible. Their job is so critical,” Rushefsky said. “When you have an institution under scrutiny, they tend to close up tighter. If they are wanting to hide, that’s all the reason to shine the light brighter.

“These children are everybody’s responsibility. In a very real way, they belong to all of us.”

Caleb beach
Caleb Blansett. Photo courtesy of the family.

Leaving Kansas with Caleb

Shortly after Caleb’s death, Blansett moved back to Nocona, Texas, where he and Nicole grew up. Now living in a small home a few blocks from the town’s high school, he and Cadence are reminded of the good times. Of life with Caleb.

There, on the wall, is a picture of brother and sister, taken a few years before Caleb’s death, in their Sunday best. On a bookshelf are separate photos of the kids, both enjoying time in Hawaii, where the family once lived.

And, looming large, there’s a plaque someone made for Blansett, with a photo of him and his son and a poem titled “Missing You.”

I think about you always; I think about you still; You have never been forgotten; And you never will…

Blansett and Cadence are learning to live on their own, something made easier in a town where most everyone knows their story.

“People here wrapped us in hugs and kisses,” Blansett said. “They’ve been amazing.”

He remembers that day in a Kansas courtroom, just a few weeks after his son died in late 2014, when a judge finalized his custody of Cadence. She was already in Texas, so he was alone when he got the ruling.

“When I left Kansas, and this is the God’s truth,” Blansett said, “as soon as they said, ‘You are good to go,’ I left that courtroom running. Literally running. I couldn’t hit the Oklahoma line fast enough.”

caleb clint
Clint and Caleb Blansett. Photo courtesy of the family.

In the nearly three years since his son died, he continues to see news of Kansas families enduring unimaginable grief. He’s read about Adrian Jones and other children who died.

He knows other families have struggled to get information as he has.

“The way I look at this is we all are going to answer for our wrongdoings and if you know you are wrong about this, you know your organization did wrong, then why not just raise your right hand and say, ‘Our bad,’ ” Blansett said. “That would go a lot further with me than not answering my phone calls, not sending the information I need just to get answers.

“It should be a full disclosure company. Why be secret? I don’t understand. … Why be secret if you don’t have anything to hide? Unless you screwed up and you’re afraid to own it.”

In the end, he couldn’t leave his son behind in Kansas. Not in the state that Blansett said caused so much pain for his family and didn’t protect Caleb the way he believes it should have.

Caleb’s ashes are in an urn on the bookcase, near all the photos. The family plans to go to Hawaii soon and scatter the fourth-grader’s ashes in the Pacific Ocean, where he learned to swim.

Until then, the father and daughter want to help protect other kids involved in the system. That’s why Blansett said he’s talking now. It’s what he and Cadence thought would be best.

“There are still children in harm’s way up there,” Blansett said. “She told me, ‘Dad, all I want you to do is help other kids.’ 

He wants his son’s death to mean something. It has to, he said.

“Someone needs to stand up and be brave enough to say, ‘The system is broken, absolutely broken and we need to start from the ground up,’ ” Blansett said. “If my son’s death could help another child, then my son’s death wasn’t in vain. If he can bring some light to the shadiness.

“In my opinion nothing stays buried, everything comes to light,” he said. “It’s a patience thing for me. It’s going to come out.”

Laura Bauer: 816-234-4944, @kclaurab


Read more in this series: Why so secret, Kansas?