Kansas lawmakers consider requiring physical evaluation for child abuse claims

By: - November 5, 2021 11:07 am

A pilot program already in place in Johnson and Wyandotte Counties could be expanded to ensure physical evaluations during investigations of child abuse or neglect tied to Adrian’s Law (Screenshot of Kansas Legislature YouTube)

TOPEKA — Child welfare advocates and Kansas lawmakers are pushing to amend a law mandating visual observation of victims in child abuse investigations to include a physical evaluation by a health professional.

The measure, known as Adrian’s Law, requires the Kansas Department for Children and Families or a representative of the law enforcement agency investigating a report to visually observe victims of abuse or neglect. The law was prompted by the death of Adrian Jones, who was 7 years old when he was starved to death by his father and stepmother in Kansas City, Kansas, after years of emotional and physical abuse.

The child was found in 2015 shortly after he died and was fed to newly purchased pigs. Despite reports from concerned parties about his well-being, law enforcement never saw Jones.

A potential amendment to the law could supply a more thorough investigation of these claims by ensuring a pediatrician or other health professional physically evaluates the child for signs of abuse.

“This is an important legislative opportunity to improve the way we care for and protect children,” said Jennifer Hansen, a fellow at the American Academy of Pediatrics. “We applaud (the Legislature’s) interest in assuring that every potential case of child maltreatment is thoroughly investigated and agree that is the goal we should be working toward.”

Adrian’s Law was approved by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Laura Kelly in May. The law included the establishment of the Joint Committee on Child Welfare System Oversight, to whom Hansen presented how the AAP would approach the amendment.

Hansen said leadership at the Department of Children and Families is already working in this area but offered opportunities to ensure the best possible follow-up for child physical abuse and neglect reports. She pointed to an ongoing pilot program in Johnson and Wyandotte counties where reported abuse from DCF is sent to a board-certified child abuse pediatrician to review the information and decide the next steps.

These could include immediate medical care, a scheduled visit to a medical provider trained in identifying child abuse, or it could be determined there is no need for specific medical follow-up.

Expanding this triage system statewide, Hansen said, would require primary care physicians and hospital personnel.

Rep. Susan Ruiz, D-Shawnee, said these evaluations would also ensure babies are not unjustly removed from their parents’ care. She shared the story of a friend who brought a newly adopted Guatemalan child to the emergency room with respiratory issues.

“Right away they were reported because on her back on her skin was a blue patch,” Ruiz said, referring to Mongolian spots, a common birthmark in Hispanic children. “There was not a trained pediatrician there, and the good news is that there was enough intervention done that the baby was not placed in custody. I’ve heard so many families where the babies had been taken because they see that, and they think it’s a bruise and it’s not.”

The process for physical evaluations would be open to modifications as training to increase the workforce of medical providers with child abuse training is conducted. These “Safe Care Providers” would participate in the initial and ongoing training of child maltreatment, including recognition of abusive injuries.

The state would need to ensure a payment system was in place for evaluations. In total, Hansen estimated the cost of the amendment at about $500,000 annually for referrals, the triage system, pediatrician payment for physical exams, training and system infrastructure for DCF.

Rep Timothy Johnson, a Bonner Springs Republican who previously served as a Kansas Special Investigator focusing on child abuse, recommended law enforcement be tied into this program.

“DCF and law enforcement butted heads so many times where one side won’t share with the other, but it is critical that enforcement people get this special training,” Johnson said. “(Child abuse investigation) is so unique and takes some extra training, and your program would give it to those officers.”

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Noah Taborda
Noah Taborda

Noah Taborda started his journalism career in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Missouri, covering local government and producing an episode of the podcast Show Me The State while earning his bachelor’s degree in radio broadcasting at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Noah then made a short move to Kansas City, Missouri, to work at KCUR as an intern on the talk show Central Standard and then in the newsroom, reporting on daily news and feature stories.