How a stressed out Kentucky social
worker accused the wrong father
of Child Abuse
THESE MISTREATED, OVERWORKED, UNDERPAID WORKERS…. I’m almost in tears…. NOT!!!! This Dear couple, the Humphries, was most pobably being setup so these poor mistreated kidnappers could have their Children by now.
Who knows how many Children’s lives have been lost or ruined, and how many Families have been broken up or innocent lives lost because of these people’s above-the law crimes.
On a Sunday morning in late August, while Karin Humphries was still in her nightgown, a sheriff’s deputy knocked at her door.
Karin, 31, was home with two of her four children, including her second youngest — a three-year-old daughter. Her husband, Brandon, 31, had just left to get a haircut.
Stunned at the unexpected visit, Karin worried something had happened to her two oldest boys, and her stomach dropped.
But the Hardin County sheriff’s deputy was there for a different reason. Carrying a summons, he asked to speak to Brandon, who had been ordered to appear before a Fayette County judge the following week for alleged abuse and neglect of their three-year-old.
“YOU COULD LOSE YOUR CHILDREN. YOU SHOULD HAVE A LAWYER,” was printed in bold on the page.
Horrified, never having seen her husband abuse their daughter or noticing any signs of neglect, Karin told the deputy he’d made a mistake. He countered by referencing the detailed statement their Fayette County social worker, Brittany Philpot, had attached to the petition.
“But we don’t have a social worker, and I don’t even know where Fayette County is,” Karin remembers telling him. Other than a visit from a child protective services worker several years ago over an issue with Karin’s ex-husband, Karin said they’ve never had any involvement with the state Department for Community Based Services, which handles child welfare matters.
A frantic Brandon, who arrived at their Rineyville home within minutes of Karin calling to say he’d been summoned, began thumbing through the paperwork with the deputy. His and Karin’s birth dates and Social Security numbers were correct, but he noticed his daughter’s information was correct on some pages but not others. And the legal name of the three-year-old’s listed biological mother was the name of a woman who lived in Lexington that neither he nor Karin knew. The Lexington woman and Brandon were listed as legal guardians.
“Within 10 seconds of reading it, I knew this wasn’t about us, that there had been a mistake,” Brandon said in his living room two weeks later.
Included in the summons were intimate details about the Lexington woman, a 21-year-old mother with two children, including a three-year-old daughter who shares an almost identical name to Brandon and Karin’s daughter. The woman later spoke to the Herald-Leader. Her identity is being withheld, along with her daughter’s name, because they are possible victims of abuse.
The paperwork given to the Humphrieses included the Lexington mother’s address, both her and her daughter’s Social Security numbers, which daycare the children attend, and details of their case, including results of drug tests the mother has taken, recent medical history, currently prescribed medications, instances of potential domestic violence, and details explaining why Philpot, 28, believes the three-year-old is “at risk of harm” in her mother’s home.
“We’re panicking, thinking, you’ve got the wrong kid, and is there a child in need somewhere and you don’t know where she is?” Karin recalled.
Around this time, more than 90 miles away, law enforcement knocked on the Lexington mother’s door with a copy of the same paperwork in tow, where the child the summons was issued to protect lives. Her copy, like theirs, included the address, birth dates and Social Security numbers of Karin and Brandon Humphries and their daughter.
For the Humphrieses, there was little they could do on a Sunday afternoon. They made several calls anyway, including to Philpot, whose number was on the summons. She didn’t pick up, so Brandon left a message.
Not knowing how quickly the issue would get resolved and being unfamiliar with the process, the couple was afraid their daughter might be mistakenly taken by child protective services, so they hastily found a lawyer for $250 an hour to appear for them in court the following Wednesday.
That night, Karin and Brandon couldn’t sleep.
“It was terrifying, literally, for two days,” Karin said, “to be sitting, watching your driveway, thinking at any moment someone might show up and take my three-year-old.”
Paranoid when their older children went to school Monday morning, Karin and Brandon asked their teachers to please call them first if anyone showed up asking questions about their kids.
Later that day, Karin phoned the Lexington mother for the first time, and found out the packets they both received were virtually identical.
When Karin shared with the Lexington mother they’d been given the specifics of her and her children’s case, “I was humiliated,” the mother said.
“I still am humiliated. I just don’t think anyone has the right to know those personal details about me and my children,” she said, adding that in the three weeks since, the state still hasn’t told her of the mix up. Earlier this week, a state employee called to say her case had been given to a different social worker without explaining why, she said.
At the Humphrieses’ that evening, state officials had begun returning phone messages, including Philpot, who wrongly assured the couple no one else had received their personal information, they said.
Two days later, the Humphrieses’ attorney returned from the hearing saying officials said all paperwork with their information had been collected and digital copies destroyed. He then handed over what he’d been given in court, which included bits and pieces of summons from other cases, they said. One of those papers included personal information about the Lexington mother’s son, who has a different father than her daughter. This led the Humphrieses to wonder, again, whether their personal information had been shared with someone else, perhaps this boy’s father, who lives in Eastern Kentucky.
Philpot and her bosses would later apologize in an interview with the Herald-Leader for her error as an “honest mistake,” but acknowledged it’s a symptom of a broader issue facing Kentucky’s child welfare system: caseworkers continue to struggle with untenable caseload volumes, increasing the likelihood for mistakes and unintended consequences.
In Kentucky right now, the average social worker manages at least double the number of recommended cases — each of which involves the welfare of a child. When Philpot pulled a wrong file that led to the mix up, she was managing nearly five times that amount.
Her slip up led to the spread of personal information, invoking fear and stoking two families’ distrust in the state’s largest branch of government. And for the Humphrieses, eventually to an ameliorating offer of $5,000 from the Cabinet for Health and Family Services to cover at least five years’ worth of credit monitoring and repayment of the Humphrieses’ attorney fees, they said. Cabinet officials would not confirm the specifics of the proposed settlement.
The offer, though, was extended on the condition that the couple agree not to sue the state, return the mixed documentation and that Karin take down a Facebook post she made about the incident, even though it didn’t include names.
They said no.
“The ability to tell our story is worth more,” Brandon said.
‘She made a mistake’
Philpot is a veteran in her profession, despite her young age. With more than six years as a state social worker under her belt, her tenure more than doubles that of many of her colleagues in Fayette County, one of the most case-heavy regions in the state, where most who leave the job do so after fewer than two years. That’s in part why she’s chief on her investigatory team, holding the highest position under her supervisor.
Her work history is also sparkling, one of her supervisors, Alicia Miller, said.
“I never have worried about a case that Brittany has investigated, or any of the information she brings back from an investigation,” Miller said.
Philpot took the job immediately after college, earnest and passionate about protecting children. In the nearly seven years since, she’s seen colleagues buried under hefty caseloads, inadequate pay and high stress spurred by long work hours flee to other professions. But it hasn’t shaken her resolve, even as she’s seen her own caseload grow to an unmanageable size. In one recent pay period, Philpot logged 48 hours of overtime, she said.
“I can attest to the caseloads in Fayette County — almost every worker I have has a high caseload and it’s due to staff turnover,” Miller said.
A year-long study completed by a state legislative committee in 2017 found Kentucky to have some of the highest caseloads in the nation, and the annual turnover rate in the profession was 24 percent. In a report issued this summer, the state average was still about 31 cases per worker — twice as high as the federal recommended standard of 15 to 17.
Raises were given to social workers across the state three years ago for the first time since 2008 as a way to stave off high turnover rates, boost morale, and create an avenue by which employees could work their way up to higher-paying positions. Starting salaries are now around $34,000. Philpot earns $43,090, according to state records.
In 2018, Gov. Matt Bevin’s biennial budget included $22.2 million to fund more pay increases for about 10 percent of social workers, and another $28 million to hire new social workers and replace outdated technology.
But progress is slow going.
Currently, the average caseload size in Fayette County is 33, according to state data. And the number of social workers hired in the area in 2019 compared with how many have quit is virtually break even: between Jan. 1 and Sept. 15, 19 social workers were hired and 16 left. In the 10 central Kentucky counties that make up the Southern Bluegrass region, including Fayette, 27 social workers have been hired this year, while 30 have quit.
Today, Philpot manages 60 cases — almost five times the federally recommended amount. Each case represents a family of varying size, meaning she manages well over 100 children, all of whom are in vulnerable and potentially dangerous positions. It’s a workload she admitted “is not doable.”
When she mistakenly swapped the Humphrieses’ three-year-old with the Lexington mothers’, she was managing 56 cases, according to her personnel records.
Philpot erred when she pulled the wrong name from Kentucky’s birth index, a statewide registry with personal information for every person born in Kentucky. That day, she also pulled information for about 10 other children, in order to issue similar juvenile dependency, abuse and neglect petitions to their parents.
Complicating matters, the Lexington three-year-old’s name was spelled incorrectly in the system, “so when I searched her in the birth index, the other child is the one that came up,” and, always tight for time, she didn’t double check her Social Security number and birth date, Philpot said in an interview Monday alongside Miller, Department for Community Based Services Commissioner Eric Clark, Cabinet for Health and Family Services Chief of Staff Tresa Straw, and DCBS Chief of Staff Lesa Dennis. They all defended Philpot’s work performance and said no reprimand was necessary.
“I made an honest mistake. I was very overwhelmed,” Philpot said. “I would never intentionally put stress on a family like this.”
Clark said he and others chose to speak publicly about the incident to admit a mistake was made, and to rebuff the Humphrieses’ notion that accountability means “publicly shaming” Philpot for a simple error.
Workforce retention is a constant struggle for the department, the officials agreed, and it’s likely to be exacerbated now that the Humphrieses are using “this as a platform to ruin a good worker’s career and publicly humiliate her,” Clark said.
“Let’s talk about mistakes. Let’s talk about outcomes due to high caseloads,” he said. “There are much more egregious things that can happen due to high caseloads outside of mailing something to the wrong address.”
Miller said it’s hard for people outside the industry to understand the toll it takes.
“For someone who doesn’t understand what the agency does and just wants to have an outlet for their own benefit when we’re here trying to protect kids, trying to make sure families have what they need, it puts a bad taste in your mouth. That there are people out there who have no clue what we do but want to drag us through the mud when we have really good workers who are trying to do their jobs.”
‘Not going to correct what happened’
In the weeks since the incident, Karin and the Lexington mother have been communicating regularly. She’s due in court for her daughter’s case in early October, and Karin, who said she feels obligated “not to turn our back on her and her kids,” plans to go.
Though Clark wouldn’t provide specifics, he said the state has tried “everything we can” to remediate the issue with the Humphrieses, but to no avail, because what they want is “more precious taxpayer dollars to pay them out for this mistake.”
The Humphrieses, though, said they’re not interested in money, especially if it comes with strings attached, and they don’t understand why they’re being portrayed as exploitative.
What they want is accountability and assurance that this won’t happen again.
“How big of a mistake are they allowed to make before something changes?” Brandon said. “They still can’t tell us who all has our information. We understand that mistakes get made, but we didn’t ask to be brought into this.”
But instead of getting bogged down scrutinizing isolated mistakes, Clark said, the department must focus on retaining more of its employees.
A big part of that means standing behind overworked staff by transparently owning minor mistakes and publicly defending them — what he called “a new way of operating.”
“We have got to stop workers from leaving our agency in two years or less,” he said, and figuring out, “how can we create an environment where workers feel supported in spite of high caseloads?”
As for what should happen as a result of Philpot’s mix up, Clark was unequivocal: “There does not need to be a change in how we operate in the Department for Community Based Services,” he said.
Accountability is necessary, he said, but this isn’t what it looks like.
“A new policy, a new procedure, disciplinary action is not going to prevent this from happening again, and it’s not going to correct what happened,” he said.
“It’s important for us to demonstrate to Brittany and our entire workforce that we care about them, because we need them. We’re not going to let bad outcomes define who we are.”