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State agency helps abused, neglected children

Staff writer

At the Marion County Interagency meeting Monday in Marion, the 30 members in attendance learned about the Kansas Protection Report Center, an agency of the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services.

Wilma Mueller, social worker specialist for Marion County for more than five years, and Harold Murphy, a longtime Children and Families Services supervisor, made the presentation. They focused on the reporting of child abuse or neglect.

The Protection Report Center, as its name implies, is the place to send such reports. There are offices in Topeka and Wichita. The Topeka office can take calls 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, including holidays. The Wichita office closes at 5 p.m. daily. The phone number is 1-800-922-5330.

Kansas law makes it mandatory for individuals such as child caregivers, social workers, educators, emergency personnel, and law enforcement officers to report cases of abuse and neglect. Members of the general public also may call in and make reports.

Other situations such as runaways, truancies, and overwhelmed young parents also can be reported to the agency.

Reporters are asked for information such as the age and location of the child, the specific concern, how the caller became aware of the incident in question, and what happened to make the reporter call the agency at the time.

A social worker screens calls and determines which qualify for investigation. The qualified reports are sent on to the appropriate SRS regional office and the case is assigned to a social worker.

Murphy said 35 percent of calls, on average, involve physical abuse, and more than 50 percent report neglect. In 2009, the agency received at least 56,000 reports. Of those, 51 percent were investigated.

Murphy said the SRS has to follow strict guidelines in determining whether or not a report is followed up on. For example, reports of abandonment cannot be investigated unless the parent or caregiver has made no alternative arrangements for care of the child.

If a child is in “imminent danger” and “will be hurt,” an immediate response is required regardless of the time it takes to respond. Sometimes, law enforcement officers accompany the investigator in case the child needs to be removed from the home.

In less critical situations, response is required in 72 hours.

The court is ultimately responsible for the decision to remove a child from the home. When making a recommendation to remove a child, SRS must weigh the emotional harm of being removed from the home with the likelihood of harm if the child remains in the home.

Removal from the home is not taken lightly, and is done only if the child’s life is in danger. Murphy said it costs SRS $4,600 a month to keep a child in out-of-home placement. He said between 4,000 and 5,000 children are currently in that situation in Kansas.

Social workers cannot make judgments based on moral issues, Murphy said. The only criterion is danger to the child.

Murphy talked about the emotional trauma to all concerned in dealing with removing children from their home. Parents are devastated, children are crying, and social workers are affected.

“You first bring the child or children to the office, where they are in strange surroundings and don’t know anybody,” he said. “Then they wait there until the appropriate authority comes to place them in alternative care.”

Murphy encourages reporters to call law enforcement if they see an incident of child abuse in progress. If a person is caught in the act of abuse, the likelihood of investigation is increased, he said.

Mueller said the SRS is limited on how much it can do. She noted there is no category for mental health neglect.

A “Guide to Reporting Child Abuse and Neglect in Kansas” is available at the Kansas Children’s Service League, 1365 N. Custer, Wichita KS 67203, or by calling (316) 942-4261 or (877) 530-5275.

Financial concerns

Mueller and Murphy were asked about the current status of the agency’s finances. Murphy said the Kansas SRS has taken a budget cut every year since 2001. It took a 16 percent cut in 2009.

A lot of restructuring has gone on within SRS, but the next year or two will remain tight. The year ahead looked bleak on July 1, Murphy said, but due to an infusion of federal funds to the states, some positions slated for cuts have been restored.

Last modified Sept. 16, 2010

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