Clint Blansett’s 10-year-old son had been dead just a few days when a social worker from the state knocked on the family’s door in south-central Kansas.
She wasn’t there to offer condolences after Caleb’s death or ask about his sister, Blansett said.
She wanted him to sign a form saying he wouldn’t talk about his son’s death or the Kansas Department for Children and Families. No details about contact the agency had with the family before Caleb’s mom smashed his head with a rock while he slept and then stabbed him seven times.
“It was a gag order,” Blansett said. “She was there for DCF; she wasn’t there for me, she wasn’t there for my daughter. She was there to ensure that I wouldn’t speak to the press. That was her only concern.”
What Caleb’s father faced that day in December 2014 is what other parents and Kansas legislators say they’ve battled for years: An agency charged with protecting kids instead focused on protecting itself. An agency where a former high-level DCF supervisor told The Star she was instructed not to document anything after a child’s death and to shred notes after meetings so attorneys and reporters couldn’t get them through open records requests.
An agency where even lawmakers insist DCF officials are intentionally misleading them and providing information the Legislature can’t trust.
In the end, Kansas children continue to die without a public review of what contact state social workers had with the families — whether they did enough and whether policies and procedures were followed.
“Secrecy is killing children,” said Dianne Keech, who knows DCF well after serving as a deputy director for two years. Before that, she spent more than 16 years as a court services officer in Wyandotte County assessing child-in-need-of-care cases.
Keech left the agency after she said she was told to shred notes after meetings about critical cases. She also said she wasn’t able to implement a system-wide review of abuse and neglect cases because administrators didn’t want mistakes put in writing.
“I couldn’t sleep because there are so many child deaths and if we don’t review them right, we’re not going to make any changes,” Keech said. “More children will get hurt. … Nobody wanted to change anything. The fight was so big and I felt so small.”
In a months-long investigation into the secrecy that permeates Kansas government and how it harms residents, The Star found a pervasive effort inside DCF to hide behind privacy laws and internal procedures to keep the public from knowing how it operates. Those practices are particularly acute in cases where children are seriously injured or killed by parents and guardians who were known to the agency.
For the past year, DCF has refused to answer questions on topics ranging from open records and the death of specific children to runaways in foster care. During the course of The Star’s reporting on widespread problems within the agency, DCF Secretary Phyllis Gilmore announced her retirement effective Dec. 1.
The Star sent a long list of questions to Gilmore last week. In response, the agency sent three paragraphs and did not address Blansett’s case.
“First and foremost, the Kansas Department for Children and Families (DCF) is committed to transparency and has spent a considerable amount of time responding to your requests for information, which DCF is not legally obligated to do,” the agency said.
Social workers in the field say they know how important image is to the department. Sarah Coats worked several years as a social worker for one of Kansas’ top child welfare contractors. She said she was fired after she tried to create a union for workers and leaked information about high caseloads.
Now running for the Kansas House as a Democrat, Coats told The Star that when a critical incident happens — including a child’s death or serious injury — a worker is required to fill out a “critical incident” form. It includes a box to check: Is this incident one that may draw public, legislative or media concern?
“Is that the worry when we have a child die or nearly die?” Coats said. “Is our first worry, ‘Will this catch media attention?’
“There’s a reason why they hide what they are doing and why they want to cover it up,” she said. “But if we never admit to the mistakes we make, we’ll never be better. We can’t sweep it under the rug when children are dying.”
‘It’s cover your ass’
The cries for change have hit a fever pitch after five high-profile child deaths in five years and after three audits — requested and approved by the Legislature — exposed flaws in the foster care system and a desperate need for more accountability.
Two months ago, this headline came from Wichita:
Missing Kansas boy, 3, found encased in concrete
Evan Brewer, who loved Batman, lived with his mother, Miranda Miller, and her boyfriend. Miller and Evan’s father, Carlo Brewer, had been locked in a custody battle.
Concerned about his son’s welfare, Carlo Brewer had reached out to DCF. And though abuse and neglect hotline calls were made in the year before the boy’s death, he wasn’t removed from his mother’s home.
“From what we understand, they (DCF) never saw him, and they said he was fine,” said Carl Brewer, Evan’s grandfather and a former mayor of Wichita who is running for Kansas governor. “They still closed his case.”
Miller refused to talk with DCF and police on numerous occasions. Her boyfriend is accused of threatening Carlo Brewer when he went to the home asking about Evan.
DCF officials say they cannot comment on the case. Police have not released how Evan died and no one has been charged in his death.
Though Carl Brewer said he’s always been concerned about the safety of children, it’s an even bigger priority in his campaign now. DCF — as well as other agencies — must be more open, he said.
“We haven’t held them accountable,” Brewer said. “They need to do their job and do it correctly. And if they do that, they don’t need to hide anything or create an environment where there’s not transparency.”
A legislative task force has met three times since August trying to determine how to fix the troubled system. Lawmakers insist they don’t think DCF is giving them accurate insight and information.
“My frustration is it appears that things get hidden,” said Sen. Barbara Bollier, a Mission Hills Republican. “I’m not convinced that they are totally forthcoming.”
Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat, agrees.
“There’s a real sense that what the agency is telling us is not right or not complete,” Kelly said. “It’s nearly impossible to get information we trust. … Obviously, in order to fix something, you have to know what’s going on. You have to be able to get under the hood, see what is working and what’s not working.”
When told of lawmakers’ concerns, DCF said in its response to The Star: “We strongly disagree with any assertion by anyone that DCF is stonewalling and misleading.”
Legislators say that during one recent task force meeting an attorney with DCF’s legal department “went in circles” and didn’t answer direct questions. Also, Kelly said, agency officials continue to tell lawmakers that Kansas’ child welfare system ranks among the country’s safest in the Child & Family Services Review, which measures how families fare in each state and whether the agency complies with federal requirements.
“In some ways it’s surreal,” Kelly said. “We are sitting there talking about a 7-year-old or a 5-year-old who died a torturous death in the system and the system’s response to that is, ‘Look at all these blue ribbons we’ve won.’ Not, ‘What can we do to make sure it doesn’t happen again?’ ”
Social workers for DCF and its two foster care contractors have told lawmakers and The Star that high caseloads at times make it difficult to do the job. Laura Bullock, who has worked for two state contractors in the past, said at one point she had as many as 43 foster kids in her caseload. Another social worker said she had as many as 57 children at one time.
Best practice, Bullock said, would be if a foster care worker had 15 to 19 children. With that many, it’s possible to complete each monthly visit and do the case plans, court hearings and meetings with families.
“Then when something happens, they (child welfare officials) look at the worker and say ‘Why weren’t you doing such and such?’ ” Bullock said. “It’s like, ‘Look, if you would stop giving us so much on our plates we maybe could have prevented this.’ ”
After the brutal death of Adrian Jones, a 7-year-old from Kansas City, Kan., whose body was fed to pigs in the fall of 2015, several lawmakers said that sources inside the system privately told them DCF had received several hotline calls about the boy. However, those legislators said they couldn’t, at the time, get that information directly from the child welfare agency.
Neither could Adrian’s maternal grandmother, Judy Conway.
“Mentally and physically it has worn on me every single day,” Conway said. “And I’ve had to live through it every day to try to get answers.”
It wasn’t until nearly 1 1/2 years after Adrian’s death made international headlines, after his father and stepmother were sentenced to life in prison, that DCF released any information. And even then, the agency released a disorganized file of 2,000 pages that one advocate said looked as if someone had thrown all the records up in the air and then haphazardly gathered them and said, “Here you go.”
“It’s like it was disorganized on purpose,” said Lori Ross, a longtime Missouri child welfare advocate who recently has gone to Topeka several times demanding change in the Kansas system. She said it took her several hours to organize the records so she could understand what happened with Adrian.
Ross, who has reviewed child welfare cases for decades, said it appears the Kansas system failed to do adequate investigations of hotline calls in Adrian’s case and had interns doing interviews instead of licensed workers. She worries that if missteps like that aren’t addressed in a timely manner, more children could fall through “holes in the safety net.”
“There are risks out there and you can’t make progress when someone says, ‘I can’t talk to you about that, that’s confidential,’ ” Ross said. “And really, what it feels like to me is that the secrecy in Kansas doesn’t feel like it’s protecting children and families’ privacy. It feels like it’s cover your ass.
“God help the children of Kansas.”
‘Not a disgruntled husband’
In the 10 years before Caleb’s death, 81 Kansas children had died from abuse and neglect.
Clint Blansett still wonders: Had those cases been examined and lessons learned, could it have changed how workers treated his concerns? Would the investigations into hotline calls have been more extensive?
“What did they do in those cases?” Blansett said. “For someone to sit there and say ‘no you can’t look at our records,’ there is something wrong. There is something so obviously wrong with that. What is there to hide?”
Seven months before his ex-wife killed Caleb, Blansett told a DCF caseworker he was worried. At the time, he was working out of state for periods at a time and feared that his son and daughter, Cadence, were being neglected and weren’t safe with their mother in Wellington, Kan.
“I wasn’t a disgruntled husband,” Blansett said. “I told her (the caseworker) about the drugs and the men and kids calling me at all times of the night.”
A few days after Blansett spoke to the caseworker, he said he got a letter saying the complaint was unsubstantiated.
Clint and Lindsey Nicole Blansett — who goes by Nicole — had been divorced for more than a year by then. Both grew up in the same North Texas small town, and after Clint returned from the Army the two started dating and were married several years before Caleb was born.
After about 13 years of marriage, Nicole filed for divorce. When a judge gave her primary custody, Clint insisted his kids wouldn’t be safe. He knew his ex-wife, who he believes did love their two children, had a family history of bipolar disorder and wasn’t medicated. He worried about her mental health.
But no one, he said, listened to him.
His concerns weren’t the only ones DCF knew about, Blansett said. He said a convenience store clerk had reported that Nicole had mistreated Caleb while in the store. A hospital worker also called, Blansett said, concerned about the boy’s treatment by his mother after he was seen for an abscessed tooth.
About a week before Caleb’s death, DCF received another call regarding the family. Blansett said Nicole called in a report saying he was molesting the children, an allegation he believes was meant to get back at him.
DCF determined the call required more investigation and assigned an investigator.
If an investigator had promptly gone to the home, and gone inside, Blansett said, that investigator would have known that his son and daughter weren’t safe. There, on the walls and behind family pictures, Blansett said his ex-wife had written “bogus scripture” in permanent marker. Some photos had horns and mustaches drawn in marker.
“Anybody that would have walked in the house, for just a moment’s time, would have seen danger, danger, for sure,” Blansett said.
As Caleb lay dead in his bed, Nicole Blansett called 911 and told the dispatcher: “I just stabbed my son.” She later said, according to police, that “life would be full of suffering and it would be better for him to go to heaven tonight.”
Soon after Caleb’s death, DCF officials released limited information about the agency’s involvement. A Wichita television station reported that DCF first got involved with the family in 2012 and then received several hotline calls in 2014 in the months before Caleb died.
Gilmore, the DCF secretary, released a statement at the time:
“As with any child death, we are deeply saddened by this news. We are carefully reviewing this incident and our history with this family… Our hearts go out to anyone affected by this unthinkable tragedy.”
Yet, nearly three years after his son’s death, Blansett doesn’t know how extensively those complaints were investigated. And he doesn’t know if DCF did an internal review of Caleb’s case to identify any missteps or changes needed in policies or procedures or state law.
“If they did, they didn’t tell me the results,” said Blansett, who has had custody of Cadence since the day after Caleb’s death.
Though Nicole Blansett has been in prison about a year, serving a life sentence, it’s still difficult to get records regarding Caleb.
The Star requested information about his case — including hotline calls and any details about DCF involvement with the family — on Aug. 4 of this year. In the proceeding weeks and months, when asked for an update, an agency spokeswoman would say the office was working on the request.
Last week, a final email came denying the 3-month-old request on nearly a 3-year-old case. The email came on letterhead from Theresa Freed, an agency spokeswoman.
“While KSA 38-2212 (state law) allows DCF to provide procedural details of the handling of a child-in-need-care investigation when it has become public knowledge, DCF has determined that it does not have the staffing resources at this time due to its current workload of KORA requests to address such requests.”