Sunday, February 13, 2011

Kansas A.G. inquiry: 'ill will' led SRS worker to ignore abuse

Posted on Sun, Feb. 13, 2011
The Wichita Eagle
A Kansas attorney general's investigation found that a state social worker disliked a Coffeyville couple and chose to do "nothing to protect" their 23-month-old granddaughter before she was murdered in 2008.
The investigation concluded that veteran SRS social worker Linda Gillen treated abuse reports involving the couple's grandchildren very differently from others and failed to take steps that her agency required in child abuse cases.
The investigation is coming to light now as part of a lawsuit brought by the couple, Larry and Mary Crosetto.
Last year the Crosettos filed a lawsuit in federal court claiming that Gillen held a decades-old grudge against them and that it cost them their granddaughter's life.
They say Gillen refused to act on repeated reports of abuse in the months before their granddaughter, Brooklyn Coons, died.
The lawsuit — which offers a rare look at inner workings of the child protection system — says Gillen had a "personal animus, bordering on hatred" toward the couple.
The Crosettos say that the "animus led to the tragic and totally preventable death" of the toddler.
In January 2008 — more than two months after the Crosettos began pressing Gillen to have the children removed from their home — Brooklyn died.
Authorities said the toddler suffered brain injuries after being beaten or violently shaken. Her father's meth-addicted girlfriend, Melissa Wells, was later convicted of first-degree murder.
Last month, an SRS attorney filed a legal argument denying that Gillen is liable. Bill Miskell, spokesman for the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services (SRS), said he can't comment on the investigation but that the agency will be filing a response in court. No one from SRS, including Gillen, can comment on pending litigation, Miskell said.
Gillen has been with SRS since 1974. At the time of Brooklyn's death, she was the only licensed social worker in the Coffeyville SRS office investigating child abuse and neglect cases, documents say.
Gillen remains in that role, Miskell said.
Another tragedy
The Crosettos had been the main caregivers for Brooklyn and her 5-year-old brother when their mother, Angela Coons, the Crosettos' daughter, was attending college. She became separated from the children's father, Randy Coons.
In June 2007, the children and their mother moved to Wichita after she got a job. About two months later, Angela Coons suddenly became ill and died.
Around September 2007, the children went to the Coffeyville home of their father and Wells, his girlfriend.
As a child, Wells had been in SRS custody, and Gillen was a social worker assigned to her case, the lawsuit says.
The Crosettos' lawyer is Randy Rathbun, a former U.S. attorney.
A striking difference
In an affidavit signed Jan. 24, Camie Russell, former director of the attorney general's Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation Unit, said that as director she reviewed about a dozen child abuse cases handled by Gillen in Montgomery County. Russell said she found a clear difference in the way Gillen treated Brooklyn's case.
In the other cases, Gillen was "very hands on," Russell said. "She undertook actions without court order based upon suggestions made by the county attorney or the district judge."
But, Russell said, "As to the Coons children she was very hands off."
Russell's investigation concluded that Gillen held "some animus or ill will toward the Crosettos," according to her affidavit.
The affidavit, based on a 2009 investigative report by Russell, said Gillen denied "that anyone blocked her from taking action."
The investigation found that Gillen "elected to do nothing to protect" the Crosettos' grandchildren.
The Crosettos say Gillen became unhappy with them in 1982 when they adopted their daughter — Brooklyn's mother — when she was an infant.
The Crosettos said they excluded Gillen, the social worker, from their efforts to adopt their daughter. They said they reported Gillen's failure to complete a home study, which led a judge to rebuke her. As a result, the Crosettos said, she became angry at them.
The couple "totally circumvented" Gillen from another adoption in 1985, "which further angered Gillen," court documents say.
"This hatred was so immense that Gillen could not hide it — so much so that a Coffeyville police officer noted it while the Crosettos' granddaughter lay in a Tulsa hospital bed fighting for her life," the Crosettos' attorney said in the recent filings.
Russell's affidavit says that when Gillen met with police and the Crosettos the day after Brooklyn went to the hospital, "Gillen's animosity toward Larry Crosetto was so obvious that Detective George indicated that she wishes that she would have recorded the interaction."
Repeated concerns
The lawsuit claims that before Brooklyn's death, "Gillen stonewalled the Crosettos' attempts to protect their grandchildren, arguing that it was her duty to do whatever she could to 'keep the family together.' The 'family' in this case consisted of Brook, her brother .. , their natural father, Randy Coons, who at the time was living in squalor with his meth-addicted girlfriend, Melissa Wells, and her two children," one of whom had been the subject of a call to the SRS reporting center.
The Crosettos argue that Gillen had a number of reasons to have Brooklyn and her brother removed from Wells' home:
* An August 2006 report to the SRS Protection Report Center or hotline alleging Wells abused her own son.
That boy's grandfather reported that the child had two nickel-size, black-and-blue bruises above the diaper line and a fading bruise under his right eye. Wells said the bruises came from falls, but her son's grandfather said he didn't believe her. He also reported that she smoked marijuana a lot, possibly with the child present.
* A September 2007 report from Brooklyn's day care provider to the SRS report center that Brooklyn was being abused.
In an affidavit, the former day care provider, Allison Horner, said that when she saw Brooklyn that September, "I was shocked by her condition. She had a black eye, a busted lip with stitches and random bruising all over her body. She was not the same little girl I had cared for just a few months earlier. ... It was very plain to me she was being abused."
Horner called the SRS reporting center and gave details about Brooklyn's injuries and other information that would allow SRS to follow up.
The report to the SRS hotline should have gone to Gillen "but is now nowhere to be found," the lawsuit says.
* A November 2007 report from a school to the SRS center that Wells was suspected of abusing Brooklyn's brother.
Gillen noted in a report that the boy came to school with a 2-inch-by-2-inch red mark on his face.
"Wells confessed to Gillen that she had struck CSC (Brooklyn's brother) in anger leaving bruising that required icing at school later that day. Predictably, Gillen found the complaint 'unsubstantiated,' " the lawsuit says.
* Repeated calls from Larry Crosetto to Gillen "detailing the abuse of his grandchildren."
* "Deplorable living conditions in Wells' home that Gillen refused to investigate. She then lied to Crosetto about having visited there to get him to stop bothering her about it," the lawsuit says.
* Evidence of drug use by Wells from two sources.
* A Dec. 24, 2007, letter from a doctor to the local SRS office — which Gillen says she didn't get — reporting that Brooklyn had bruises that should be investigated.
* On Dec. 28, 2007, Crosetto offered photos of bruises on the children.
That same day, Crosetto told Gillen "that her refusal to do her job was going to end up causing the death of one of his grandchildren. ... Three weeks later, Brook was dead," the lawsuit says.
SRS worker defended
In a document filed early last month, SRS staff attorney Maureen Redeker defended Gillen, saying:
* "There is no evidence of Ms. Gillen's intent towards Crosettos."
* Gillen "is not liable for private violence."
* There is no evidence that Gillen's conduct "created or increased the danger" to Brooklyn.
* The risk to Brooklyn "was not obvious and known" to Gillen.
* Gillen "did not act in conscious disregard of a known risk" to Brooklyn.
* Gillen's "conduct was not conscience shocking."
A list of 'failures'
Regardless of whether Gillen is liable, she failed on the Coons case in multiple ways, court documents say.
Russell, the former attorney general's official, said in an affidavit that Gillen failed to take actions required by her agency. Russell cited five areas:
* "Failure to note prior SRS involvement with Wells ... ."
* "Failure to take photos of the child to document the injury."
* "Failure to complete a home visit; the site where the maltreatment occurred."
* "Failure to report Wells' confession of intentionally hitting CSC (Brooklyn's brother, in the face) to law enforcement."
* "Failure to interview additional significant caretakers of the children."
Russell's investigation noted a lingering question: What happened to the letter the doctor wrote addressing bruises and other marks on Brooklyn about three weeks before she died?
The doctor sent the letter to the Coffeyville SRS office. The doctor's letter "noted concern of abuse, listed marks and bruising, referenced records of past injury... and requested SRS look into child's environment and provide a report back to him," Russell's review said.
Gillen should have received it, but there is no record of it being received, Russell's affidavit says.
Gillen's role crucial
Russell found that the role of SRS and Gillen was crucial.
"Law enforcement, the school, the doctor, a daycare provider, and others interviewed indicated that they were under the impression that SRS/Gillen was investigating and addressing the Coons abuse and neglect concerns."
Larry Crosetto tried other routes besides Gillen and the doctor.
On Nov. 5, 2007, he called Fire Chief Greg Allen to voice concerns about living conditions at Wells' home. Allen inspected the home's exterior and left a note asking permission to check inside but never heard back from Wells or Randy Coons.
On Dec. 12, 2007, when Crosetto sought help from school district officials, he was told "that the school could do no more as the matter was in the hands of the SRS."
Crosetto feared that if his grandchildren were removed from their father, he probably would not see them again. But after his grandson was struck in the face, he decided his "fears were insignificant compared to the welfare of the children," and from then on "he really started to push Gillen to protect the children," the lawsuit says.
Crosetto called Gillen on Nov. 6, 14, 15 and 16. "She refused to return my calls," his recently filed affidavit says.
On Nov. 20, Gillen "finally accepted a call from me. ... I tried to discuss my concerns about bruising on Brooklyn and the suspected drug use of Melissa Wells. Gillen said those were police matters and refused to discuss them."
Reach Tim Potter at 316-268-6684 or
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