Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Child Abuse: What are we doing wrong?

Tonight's class was a toughie. We watched a Dateline investigative report on the death of Kayla McKean in 1998. I have yet to work directly with abused children so I have no personal experience in this area. These are opinions based on my education, and I am quite aware that things are very different in the field.

Disclaimer: My facts and details aren't exact, so don't blast me for that. There are plenty of resources (see below) to find the exact details.

In 1998, Kayla McKean was a 6 year old girl in the 1st grade. She lived in central FL (why the hell is it always FL?) with her mother, who soon gave up on parenting her. I don't remember any details about her mother, but something tells me she wasn't parenting Kayla in a healthy fashion). Her father, Richard, was married and had a small child. At some point, Richard took in Kayla.

Kayla showed up to school with 2 black eyes. Her guidance counselor or teacher made a call to Richard, who says she fell off her bike. Kayla confirms the story. Richard is urged to take Kayla to a doctor immediately, so he takes her to the emergency room. The doctor came to the conclusion that her injuries (a broke nose, which causes black eyes, a broken knuckle and some bruising) is conclusive to falling off a bike. It can happen. She took Kayla aside to see if she would admit to anything, but Kayla stuck to the story. While the doctor believed the story, her instincts still persisted, so she called the abuse hotline, and a child protective investigator was sent to the hospital. The doctor told the social worker that Kayla's injuries were conclusive to the accident, but didn't share her instincts about anything else. She believed the abuse call was proof she thought something was awry. The SW interviewed all parties, all had the same story. She concluded that abuse was unfounded.

Richard had an anger problem, and admitted this throughout his casework, so the SW sent them to a contracted family services program to receive assistance with parenting and his anger problem. She also ordered a psychological eval, which she never followed up on. Why didn't she ask to see this bike? Or where the accident happened? She was new to the job (big surprise!), maybe experience and the stress of too many cases for one person to handle where clouding her judgement. Maybe she really did believe the story.

The SW assigned to the case was on a leave of absence when another abuse report was made a few weeks later. Kayla again showed up to school with the same injuries and the same story. Again, she was asked to be medically evaluated, and we taken to a pediatrician. The pediatrician concluded abuse on sight, and after examining Kayla, made the abuse report. A new SW was sent to investigate, and abuse was unfounded (I can't remember the details).

A friend of Richard took notice of Kayla's condition and tried to pry info from Richard and Kayla. Neither ever let on to abuse. When Summer came, Richard called up said friend and told him he couldn't handle Kayla anymore (he said she was evil) and would the friend take her indefinitely. The friend did, and for 3 weeks, Kayla had a very happy and healthy existence. However, Richard called the friend up to say he wanted Kayla back to prepare her for school. The friend was very reluctant to give Kayla back, but he had no legal grounds to keep her.

Some time into the first half of the school year, Kayla comes to school with different injuries and a new story (of which I can't remember). This time, the Guidance Counselor made the abuse report. Because time had passed and no abuse had occurred, the case was closed. When the new report came in, a new case was opened and a 3rd SW was assigned to the case. For whatever reason (details I can't remember), abuse was unfounded.

Thanksgiving comes and Richard files a missing child report. Kayla is gone. A search party is sent out immediately, on Thanksgiving Day! The FBI investigate Richard and his wife, Marcie. After a few days and no body, Marcie breaks down and tells the truth. Richard beat the life out of Kayla when she soiled her underpants. After Richard threatens to take their baby and run, he talks Marcie into driving to the Ocala National Forest to bury Kayla's body. Both are arrested, Marcie later gets out, but Richard is served with a life sentence. I do believe he was eventually given the death penalty and executed by lethal injection.

My first reaction is "Why did Marcie allow this to happen?" I assume it is because Richard threatened her and their child, and she complied out of fear. I will not judge her, although I have so much I'd like to say! As far as the system side, I have not worked in this field, so I think it allows me to see both sides. I definitely believe there was ample evidence and enough professionals involved with this family, that Kayla should and could have been saved. However, we watched an investigative report, so what we heard was a hell of a lot more information than what each of the workers involved knew. I am also very aware of the severe amount of work the case managers and investigators deal with, and unfortunately, these workers are human, and humans aren't perfect. There was also a severe communication issue between entities and a serious lack of follow up. The teacher said that there is so much paperwork involved that a lot of focus has turned away from protecting the child to CYA (covering your own ass). This obviously didn't occur in Kayla's case, as workers did not follow up when they should have (first step in CYA, people!) and a lot of reportable evidence was not properly documented.

The SWs involved all had the same story:
  • new to the job
  • no social service background
  • little training
  • few workers, which meant major caseloads
  • pressure to close cases ASAP
  • little follow-up
These complaints sound very familiar! They are the same complaints made in the mid-1800's by social workers who investigated the Orphan Train children. That was over 150 years ago! Are you seriously telling me that we are still experiencing the same exact problems? Yes, I know that the importance and action in child welfare has improved LEAPS AND BOUNDS since then, but the system itself seems to be stuck in limbo. What the heck are we doing wrong, and how can we change it for the better? Unfortunately, I don't excel at this type of problem solving, but I'm sure many people have suggested different types of reform, but how do you fix a problem that is nothing but a big cycle of problems?


R.I.P Kayla McKean