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Agency says social worker's action 'reprehensible'

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) -- The refusal by a former social worker to act on pleas to protect a Kansas toddler who was later beaten to death was "reprehensible," but occurred during a prior administration, the state's child welfare agency said Friday.

The Kansas Department for Children and Families, formerly known as the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitative Services, commented one day after a federal judge ruled that Linda Gillen, a former social worker with Kansas SRS, was entitled to qualified immunity in the lawsuit. U.S. District Judge Monti Belot cited prevailing case precedent that a social worker is "constitutionally free to ignore the pleas" of the grandparents and offer no assistance.

Theresa Freed, spokeswoman for the agency, said in an emailed statement to The Associated Press that when the present administration inherited this case upon taking office in January 2011, the agency began an internal investigation which led to Gillen's termination in April 2011. Shortly after the investigation began, Gillen's supervisor resigned.

"DCF social workers have a tremendous responsibility that is physically and emotionally draining. They pour their hearts into their work as they protect the safety and well-being of children," the agency said. "They are dedicated and concerned professionals. Unfortunately, Gillen is the exception to this rule."

Larry and Mary Crosetto, the girl's maternal grandparents, claimed in their lawsuit that Gillen did not respond to their complaints because she had a personal grudge against them. Their granddaughter, Brooklyn Coons, of Coffeyville, died in January 2008. Her father's girlfriend, Melissa Wells, is serving life in prison for the girl's death.

Belot wrote in his ruling that he, as a citizen and parent, cannot "understand how anyone having defendant's job could have acted as she did. Whether or not her conduct is 'conscience-shocking,' it is inexplicable and unprofessional and, sadly, fairly consistent with other cases before this court involving Kansas SRS personnel."

DCF acknowledged the court's finding that Gillen's actions were "inexplicable and unprofessional," but took issue with the latter part of the judge's criticism of the agency saying is unclear whether he is referring to current DCF personnel or SRS staff from the earlier administration.

"The Court has not advised the Kansas Department for Children and Families (DCF) of any specific recent cases that would be 'consistent' with the Gillen case," Freed wrote.

In his decision, Belot said while the allegations suggest Gillen may have had ill will toward the grandparents, there is no evidence she intended to harm the girl. There is also no law holding that an intentional refusal to act results in a finding that Gillen "enhanced the danger" to the girl.

Attorneys for the Crossettos did not respond to a phone messages left Friday at their office. Gerald Green, the attorney who represents Gillen, said Friday he has not been able to contact his client since the decision came down but said that they are obviously pleased with it.

"We have looked at this case from the very beginning as Ms. Gillen was entitled to qualified immunity and so the federal claims being asserted were without merit from that standpoint," Green said. "All I can say is if this case were ever to go to trial, certainly Ms. Gillen would contest a number of the allegations about what the plaintiffs claimed happened."

The grandparents alleged that Gillen refused to take calls from police or accept pictures of alleged abuse, lied about visiting the home where the girl lived and told the grandparents that the abuse "was not her issue, but one for law enforcement."