Internal email: Staffing problem caused child abuse report backlog
Sarah Coats provided an internal email from the Department for Children and Families showing a backlog in processing reports of child abuse. She said she was fired from KVC Kansas, a DCF contractor, after attempts to unionize.
Child abuse and neglect reports piled up in Kansas because of “a severe staffing issue,” a high-ranking state Department for Children and Families official said in a September email.
A fired worker for an agency contractor said some calls weren’t returned for days.
The email, sent by Candace Moten, the agency’s family preservation services program manager, contradicts DCF’s public statements. The agency said Friday no such backlog existed and the email was inaccurate, but declined to make Moten available for an interview.
But the agency acknowledged it struggled to keep up with the volume of calls at the time of the email, which Moten sent Sept. 22 in an apparent effort to streamline reporting. It appears to have been forwarded to dozens of individuals.
“DCF Kansas Protection Reporting Center (KPRC) is currently experiencing a backlog in processing new reports of abuse or neglect, due to a severe staffing issue,” the email reads. “Since (Family Preservation Services) staff make quite a few reports to KPRC, we are requesting that all your reports be made on the web-based reporting system. These reports will get processed more quickly and are time stamped when they are made.”
A former worker for KVC Kansas, a DCF contractor, provided the email to The Topeka Capital-Journal. Sarah Coats said KVC fired her days ago, after she pursued efforts to unionize workers at the nonprofit organization.
In the wake of her firing, Coats has been vocal on social media. She promises to continue to push to unionize KVC workers.
“This is the first time I feel like I can speak openly,” Coats said in an interview. “It’s always been known that if you were to make a remark, whether it be in public or in court or in private, that could be determined to be disparaging between DCF or KVC, that could be termination of your employment. Now I’ve already been fired and I don’t have to be silenced.”
Agency struggled with call volume
Coats’ decision to go public with her firing comes after DCF disclosed it has hundreds of open jobs within the agency. The agency said last week 463 staff positions are open, with an annual turnover rate of 18.9 percent.
DCF said at that time it has “a number” of vacant positions it is trying to fill within prevention and protection services, but the precise number of openings within the division hasn’t been publicly disclosed. The agency also said it was holding open other positions as it assesses the need for those positions.
Agency spokeswoman Theresa Freed on Friday said it is inaccurate to say there was a backlog of abuse and neglect reports in September. Calls were answered and addressed, she said.
Freed said the agency couldn’t speculate on why one of the agency’s top officials would have sent an email with inaccurate information. She said she wasn’t aware of any corrections to Moten’s email. Coats also said no follow-up messages were sent.
Freed didn’t respond to requests to interview Moten.
DCF is in need of more child welfare workers, Freed said, adding that the shortage is a nationwide issue. The agency continues to work on recruiting social workers and support staff, she said.
“September is the busiest time of the year for reports, because kids go back to school and many of our mandated reporters are within the school system. We were struggling to keep up with the volume of calls at that time,” Freed said. “However, priority reports are marked as ‘priority,’ and we have designated staff members who work those immediately.”
Priority reports would have included marks and bruises, or situations in which the perpetrator was in the home, or if an infant or baby was involved. Non-priority would include issues like truancy or non-abuse or non-neglect reasons.
Coats said calls to the reporting center had been backed up over the past year. She said she would often call the hotline, be on hold for 10-15 minutes, and then told to leave a message.
In some cases, she didn’t receive a call back for days.
“So when I have a child that’s in imminent danger that may need to be a same-day investigation, there’s a big delay in the reports,” Coats said.
Coats expressed concern with the email’s request to make only web-based reports. She said her caseload averaged about 24 cases during her time with KVC. Writing out every report often proved time-consuming.
Freed said DCF and contractor staff are encouraged to make web reports, but that they are not required. The reporters likely already have demographic information and know what details are needed, generally allowing faster processing of web reports, she argued.
Another part of the email asked workers to ensure a report had not already been made before making one. Coats argued this can pose problems.
“There’s a big issue, too, with saying if something’s already been reported, don’t make a report,” Coats said. “I can’t take somebody’s word at face value that they’ve reported it or they say they’re going to. I myself am mandated and if I don’t have any formal notification that a report’s been made, I have to call it in.”
Freed said the instruction was not intended to discourage mandated reporters from making a report.
“We have a tremendous group of child welfare workers who have dedicated their lives to the protection of children,” Freed said. “Our top priority is keeping children safe. When ranked against other states, Kansas has one of the safest child welfare systems in the country.”
Pressing to unionize
Coats indicated her employer, KVC, didn’t respond well to her efforts to unionize, which she said began formally in July. She says she suffered an on-the-job assault that played a role in prompting her to organize. Court records indicate she was threatened with violence in April 2015 by Anthony Long, who pleaded guilty.
Coats said she was told on Monday by KVC that concern existed over a Facebook post that referenced her assault.
“They said I shouldn’t have posted I was assaulted while working,” Coats said.
On Wednesday, Coats said she had a meeting with DCF where she was told what the agency wanted her to recommend in a court report. Coats said she didn’t professionally agree with the agency’s recommendations.
About an hour and a half after the meeting, KVC fired her, Coats said. The organization cited the Facebook post, she said.
On Friday, KVC declined to answer questions about Coats. The organization said it doesn’t comment on personnel matters or even whether someone is an employee.
“We will have no comment on those specific questions,” KVC spokeswoman Jenny Kutz said. “With respect to your other general inquiries, KVC complies with all applicable laws and regulations. We respect the rights of our employees regarding any of those laws or regulations applicable to the employment relationship.”
On Friday, Washburn Law professor Joseph Mastrosimone said it appears KVC falls under the National Labor Relations Act. In that case, if Coats was fired for unionization efforts, this would violate federal law, Mastrosimone said, because it would interfere with her rights under the statute and would constitute discrimination based on union activity.
Mastrosimone said posts on social media also may be protected by the same federal law, depending on their content. Writing that advocates for unionization or other concerted efforts related to work conditions, for example, would be covered.
Coats said she has spoken to an attorney and will press forward in her attempt to unionize KVC workers. She said she loved her job.
“I’m continuing to organize,” Coats said. “That’s not stopping.”