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Officers, social worker claim county leaving kids in danger

Pierce County Human Services supervisors have made questionable decisions about leaving at-risk children in their homes and those decisions could have disastrous consequences, say law enforcement officials and a child protection worker who resigned in frustration.

"It's going to take a child fatality to wake the public up," said former county Social Worker Amy Johnson in an interview last week. "God help us if that's what happens."

"They're telling us that if there's not intervention, there are going to be deaths," said Pierce County Board candidate Rich Purdy Friday.

Purdy and his wife Maureen Ash, who is now a County Board member, met with several police officers and school administrators after Johnson sent a letter to county supervisors in February.

"I really think that this is serious," said Ellsworth Police Chief Greg Place Thursday. It was important enough, he said, that he and other law enforcement officials took their concerns to Human Services Director Reggie Bicha, Human Services Board Chairwoman Raynee Farrell and County Administrator Mark Schroeder.

Police officers across the county are all having problems with the Human Services Department's lack of response to reports of abuse and neglect, said Sheriff Everett Muhlhausen, who organized the Feb. 20 meeting with Human Services representatives.

"Recently we have had it reach the point where we have no faith, and it breaks me," said Muhlhausen, who served as the county's juvenile officer for 15 years.

'Nothing happens'

He said officers will ask social workers to investigate possible abuse or neglect, but nothing is done. "(Referrals) get screened out and nothing happens."

In one major case, said Muhlhausen, a couple of kids reported that their parents were breaking the law. The parents were arrested, and another family member took the children.

Law officers didn't know if that person was able or fit to care for the children and asked Human Services to investigate.

Nothing happened, said Muhlhausen. "No contact."

When an officer questioned the lack of action, he was told Human Services would send a packet of information to the grandmother.

The sheriff also said the department has imposed "very lax consequences" on law-breaking juveniles.

"We, over the years, have built a strong rapport and relationship with Human Services," said Muhlhausen, noting that the Pierce County team approach has been a model for other counties. But that relationship has fallen apart, said the sheriff.

"I definitely see that there has been a breakdown in communications between my agency and Human Services," agreed Place.

"If this doesn't correct, it's not going to go away," he said. "This needs to be addressed and it needs to be taken care of."

Questions decisions

Place said he questions some decisions Human Services workers have made recently regarding the placement of juveniles. In some cases, he said, children haven't been put in foster care when they should have and in some cases they have been when they shouldn't have.

"We're seeing a delay in things," said Place of the handling of delinquents who are on intensive supervision. When juveniles break supervision rules, they should be dealt with, he said.

"It may be happening in other forms by Human Services, but I don't necessarily think they're aggressive enough," said Place. "At a certain point you have to draw the line (with juveniles)."

"Reggie was going to take things back and review their policies and protocols and respond back," said Place of the result of the Feb. 20 meeting. He said it was the group's consensus that more meetings and continued communications are needed.

There have been problems, those have been brought to the attention of county administrators, and now he and other law enforcement officers are waiting to see what will happen, said Place.

"I have hope that we're moving," he said.

Muhlhausen was less optimistic.

"There has been no response," he said. Muhlhausen said he hasn't heard from Bicha in the two weeks since the meeting and doesn't believe any progress was made.

"We all have to work together as a team," said Place. "This isn't about Human Services. This is not about law enforcement."

Human Services can take a child who violates supervision into temporary custody for up to 72 hours. In some cases the custody is for the safety of the child, and in others it's for protection of the public, said Place.

Trend changed

"Somewhere along the line, the trend went away from that," said Place. He thinks the change came 18-20 months ago.

In the past, one or two Ellsworth juveniles a week were taken into custody, said Place. That number slowly tapered off to the point that no Ellsworth children have been on 72-hour hold in the last eight weeks, said Place.

No one told his agency of any change in policy, and he knows of juveniles whose violations have been serious enough that they definitely should have been placed in detention, said Place.

In her letter to county supervisors, Johnson said she resigned in November due to "the continued harassment and hostile work environment which I have endured throughout this past year."

Johnson - whom Muhlhausen described as "a very professional worker" - outlined cases in which Children, Youth and Families Program Manager Kris Miner overruled Johnson's recommendations to remove children from homes that Johnson believed were dangerous. In some cases, Johnson said, Miner then attempted to "educate" Johnson and other workers on her mistakes.

"I've questioned some of (Miner's) decisions myself," said Pierce County District Attorney John O'Boyle. He gave the example of a case in which police officers were called to a home where a minor had assaulted another family member. Officers took the juvenile into custody only to have Human Services decide to leave the child in the home.

O'Boyle said he isn't satisfied with the way CHIPS (Children In Need of Protection and Services) referrals are being handled.

When they get a report of neglect or abuse of a child, social workers must investigate and then decide either do an informal disposition or ask the DA to file petition to take the child out of the home. O'Boyle compared an informal disposition in a CHIPS case to a deferred prosecution agreement.

If social workers opt for an informal disposition, he has the authority to overrule that decision, said O'Boyle.

He said that in the last 2 1/2 years he hasn't been notified of informal dispositions. Since there are deadlines involved, failing to receive the notification interferes with what he can do.

"We can't overrule something we don't know about," said O'Boyle. In some cases, he said, he would have rejected the decision to use an informal disposition.

O'Boyle said he always gets a copy of the deferred prosecution agreements, which Juvenile Lead Worker Julie Dollahon handles, but hasn't been informed of the disposition of CHIPS cases - which Miner supervises.

O'Boyle said he did get one notice of an informal disposition dated Feb. 23. He said that was in response to the issue being brought to Bicha's attention.

That was the first one he's gotten in over two years, said O'Boyle. "There was no explanation."

"By their interpretation very few children are being abused and neglected," said Johnson.

She said it seems that Bicha and Miner are more concerned with cost than with the safety of children.

"They have saved the county lots of money," said Johnson. "My position, and that of many others, is at whose expense?"

'Battle every time'

Johnson said it was hard to go home at night and sleep, believing that she had left children in danger.

"We don't want to take kids out of their homes if we don't have to," said Johnson. "That is the last option, but every so often we need that option."

Muhlhausen said Johnson was good at her job and good at "screening out cases when nothing needs to be done but working on the hard cases."

In perhaps 98% of cases, she wouldn't recommend removing the children, said Johnson.

In the other 2%, when she recommended foster care, she met with resistance, said Johnson. "By Reggie and Kris' standards, it's a battle every time."

"I know that I've left kids in homes that never should have been left there," said Johnson. "This will haunt me forever. But it was a battle with management, each and every time."

Johnson gave three examples:

• A child was injured at home on a weekend. He and his siblings were taken out of the house and spent the rest of the weekend in the home of a family friend. Johnson first heard of the situation when she came to work Monday morning. She said Miner handed her the file and told her to complete the investigation by 1 p.m. because the family friend had to leave for work then. Johnson said Miner said if the investigation wasn't completed by 1 p.m., the children would be sent home.

Johnson said she wondered, "Why am I even investigating this? You're making your safety assessment from behind your desk."

She said the children went home. "To me that says, free care is about to end (at 1 p.m.) and foster care is going to cost us money."

• School officials reported apparent abuse of a child. Johnson said she and a Sheriff's Department investigator teamed up to handle the case. They interviewed the child at school and found he had significant physical injuries. The child was afraid to go home and Johnson couldn't reach the parents. The child was temporarily removed from his home.

Johnson said when she attempted to talk about the case in a staffing with other social workers, Miner objected to passing around photos that showed the severity of the child's injuries.

"She said that it wasn't necessary for my coworkers to view them, there was no reason for them to know about the injuries, and reminded me that Pierce County's new philosophy is not injury-based practice," said Johnson.

• Last summer, said Johnson, there was another report of "fairly serious physical abuse" of a child. The child was temporarily removed from the home, and Johnson requested that a CHIPS petition be filed to ensure services to the family. Johnson said that although Miner originally agreed to the request, the afternoon before the trial was to be held, Miner overturned the decision, indicating there was "unsubstantiated" abuse. The assistant district attorney wasn't able to successfully argue for the CHIPS petition.

Johnson said Miner didn't read the file until after the hearing.