Former SRS investigator: Boy's death was preventable
BY TIM POTTER
The Wichita Eagle
The beating death of a 2-year-old Wichita boy last year could have been prevented if the state child protection agency hadn't blocked efforts to investigate day care fraud, a former investigator has contended.
In an affidavit signed Sept. 23, Tim Holmes said that before the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services fired him about 10 months ago, agency officials directed him to stop helping federal agents probing day care fraud in the Wichita area.
SRS spokeswoman Michelle Ponce said of Holmes' claim: "It is a jump to assume that a child care investigation ... could have in any way prevented the terrible tragedy that occurred."
Ponce denied that SRS told Holmes to stop aiding federal agents.
Originally, SRS documents said the agency fired Holmes for "gross misconduct" that included doing private work on state time — an allegation he has denied.
On Friday, SRS and Holmes reached an agreement ending his appeal of his firing and changing his termination to a voluntary resignation, Ponce said. Under the agreement, Holmes no longer claims that SRS fired him in retaliation for disclosing information to the media or public, she said.
One undisputed fact is that at the time 2-year-old Damion Thomas died, he was supposed to have a safety net.
Under a day care assistance program for low-income parents, the state paid a day care provider to watch the boy while his mother worked. State law requires day care providers to report signs of child abuse.
But instead of being at day care, police said Damion was left with his mother's boyfriend, who is charged with beating the child to death while she was at work.
According to an autopsy, Damion suffered a host of visible injuries. Some appeared to have occurred months before his death.
Damion hadn't been to day care for almost three weeks before he died, his day care provider told The Eagle.
After the boy's death, SRS investigated his day care provider to determine whether she "was actually providing care and if so, was she aware of the past alleged abuse or was she only providing the child care in name only and we may have possible fraud," according to an internal SRS e-mail received by The Eagle.
Fraud can occur when parents conspire with day care providers to split day care assistance money — without sending the children to day care.
It's unclear whether SRS or other authorities have determined the provider committed fraud.
"We're still reviewing the situation," Ponce said.
Holmes' contentions appear in an affidavit filed in late September with the state Civil Service Board as part of his appeal of his firing.
After Holmes and SRS reached the agreement Friday, his lawyer, Richard Olmstead, said, "A resolution has been reached, and we cannot comment about the case."
Holmes, 44, is a former Russell County sheriff and before his firing was a fraud unit supervisor with the Wichita SRS office. Holmes said in the affidavit that shortly after he raised concerns about Damion's death with SRS, the agency began an investigation of him that led to his firing.
According to SRS documents on file before Friday's agreement, the agency fired Holmes for "gross misconduct" that included doing work for his private business during his SRS work hours.
Holmes, who served and processed legal papers as a side job, denies the allegation that he did the private work while doing his public job.
Police said Damion's mother left him with her live-in boyfriend, DeWhite Cameron, 27, a man with a long criminal record who has been charged with first-degree murder in the boy's death. Cameron is undergoing an evaluation to determine whether he is mentally competent to stand trial.
Cameron's attorney, Lee McMaster, has said that part of his client's defense "may well be that others, or another, were involved in the death."
Damion's mother, Shaneekwa Saunders, 24, has pleaded guilty to aggravated child endangerment and has been placed on a year of probation.
Saunders' attorney, Chrystal Krier, said Saunders "pled to that because she should not have left him with DeWhite ... because her son was killed eventually."
Damion's day care provider told The Eagle that she cared for him and his twin brother for a few months — until Sept. 1 or Sept. 2, 2008. To help their mother, she picked them up. But when she went to get them one day at their home on 13th near Hillside, the family was gone, she said.
"I didn't have a clue where they had moved to,'' she said.
According to Holmes' affidavit, after he learned of Damion's death last year, he discovered that the boy's mother and day care provider were committing fraud and that Damion had never been in the provider's care.
Damion's provider was one of 30 Wichita-area providers that Holmes had proposed to investigate, the affidavit said. They were the top-paid providers under the state's day care aid program.
If SRS had allowed Holmes and others to audit those providers, the investigators could have determined that Damion was not in day care as he was supposed to be, Holmes contends.
Ponce, the SRS spokeswoman, said: "We have multiple checks ... built into the system."
The agency tracks providers who have high incomes from the state day care program, she said. So the investigative strategy that Holmes described was "not a novel idea that he had. It's something that we do on an ongoing basis," she said.
Holmes said in the affidavit that last year he had been helping federal investigators with the IRS and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services look into alleged fraud among Wichita-area day care providers with the 30 highest incomes from the state assistance program.
Some providers were receiving about $105,000 a year in state money under the program, the affidavit said.
The investigation would have included Damion's day care provider. She was No. 30 in income, with $57,800 for the year from the child care program, according to a Sept. 24, 2008, e-mail from Jean Hogan, director of the Wichita SRS office, to staff.
Months of abuse
Damion's death was one of eight child homicides recorded in Wichita last year that resulted from abuse or neglect, police said.
An autopsy showed that he suffered abuse for months leading up to a fatal beating. He had scars, mostly well-healed, across his back and on his scalp, forehead, cheek, neck, shoulder, chest, abdomen, arm, hand, thigh and lower leg.
His recent injuries included a 2 3/4- by 2 1/2-inch bruise in the middle of his forehead.
Police said his twin also had been beaten, but not as severely.
In an interview, Holmes said he pushed for an SRS investigation about two months before Damion's death to uncover cases in which day care providers and parents split child care money.
In the affidavit, Holmes said he recommended bringing state investigators to Wichita and checking providers' attendance records. If investigators couldn't account for a child who was supposed to be in day care, it would have triggered a check to determine whether the child was safe. He said his Wichita supervisor, Larry Vernon, approved the plan.
Ponce said a child's day care attendance would not necessarily indicate abuse or neglect. Only in instances of suspected abuse or neglect would a child-protection investigation be launched, she said.
Holmes' affidavit said that Vernon later told him to stop investigating — that John Badger, SRS' chief legal counsel in Topeka, had directed Holmes to quit assisting federal investigators and cease any additional day care fraud investigation.
Ponce denied the claim: "That is not a true statement. Neither John Badger or Larry Vernon have ordered staff not to cooperate with federal investigators."
After learning of Damion's death and the possible day care fraud, Holmes said he complained to his supervisor in the Wichita SRS office and to colleagues "that had the State not prohibited me from doing my job and investigating potential day care fraud, the child would not have been murdered."
He said he also told his supervisor that he was going to contact federal investigators about his concerns.
Days later, SRS began to investigate misconduct allegations against Holmes, the affidavit said. Holmes denied the allegations, including the claim that he had improperly used the computer system by disclosing confidential information.
How fraud works
To access their day care benefits, parents receive a card to pay for child care. The card gets swiped through a device at the day care site, triggering payment to the provider's bank account.
When there is fraud, instead of bringing children to the day care home, the parent keeps the children and the card gets run through the device. The parent and provider then share the proceeds.
SRS Secretary Don Jordan said the agency is committed to combating fraud: "We try to actively identify situations that involve fraud and investigate those to determine if fraud is involved."
SRS has several ongoing child care fraud investigations in Sedgwick County, he said. Still, Jordan said, most day care providers are honest and hardworking.
The Kansas day care assistance program helps about 11,000 families, spending on average $315 a month per child, Ponce said. The program costs roughly $80 million a year.
The day care aid is important because it "allows people to go to work and still be able to pay for quality child care," Ponce said.
Site visit revelations
Later the same day that Hogan — head of the Wichita SRS office — sent the e-mail about Damion's case, one of her staffers, Shelley Martin, made a "review site visit" to Damion's provider's home and found that the provider was gone.
Martin saw six children there who were being watched by the provider's 18-year-old daughter, according to a memo written by Martin.
Her memo said that four Thomas children, including Damion, were not listed in day care attendance records for August or September, although the day care provider was paid $794 for August and $167 for September.
Martin also determined that the provider was supposed to be caring for other children who were not listed in attendance records.
Martin wrote that the provider's daughter told her that her mother was gone that afternoon because she was at work.
At the end of the memo, Martin typed: "My recommendation would be to terminate the SRS enrollment with (the day care provider) as she is not doing FT child care for any of these families since she works 2 PT jobs."
SRS terminated the woman's day care provider agreement for about five months and reinstated it in April, Ponce said. She said she couldn't say why the agreement had been terminated.
According to Kansas Department of Health and Environment records, in April the provider received a new license with a partner.
[wp angelfury] KS-Family Court Reform Coalition.