Alarmed by multiple pleas for help from relatives of a 7-year-old Northern Kentucky girl who reported the child was being abused and neglected at home, state social worker Karey Cooper checked on her at school.
She found the girl hungry and unkempt, with hair “like a rat’s nest,” Cooper would later report in a letter to Teresa James, state commissioner of social services.
The girl told her she had not seen the therapist required through a court agreement, often came home to an empty house, didn’t get regular meals and frequently went hungry.
For her efforts, Cooper now faces disciplinary action and possible termination by her employer in Northern Kentucky, the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services.
Her offense? Unknown to Cooper, another worker had closed the cabinet’s long-running case on the girl’s family, finding no further action was necessary. Cooper said she was informed she violated cabinet policy by visiting the child.
Cooper has been yanked off her regular duties as a “special investigations” state social worker in Boone County, investigating the most serious and complex cases. For the past six weeks, she has been assigned to desk duty typing case notes while her supervisors consider what action to take.
“This was my job — at least I thought it was,” said Cooper, who had worked with the girl’s family for nearly a year before the case was transferred to another worker. “Here they’ve lost track of 92 cases and I’m in trouble because I went to see one kid.”
The cabinet’s action against Cooper comes as its 12-county Northern Bluegrass service region is roiled by high worker turnover, soaring caseloads and the recent disclosure that its Boone County office lost track of 92 cases of alleged child abuse and neglect that sat untouched for months.
Cabinet officials Thursday declined to comment on Cooper’s situation, saying officials don’t comment on pending personnel actions. As for other problems in the Northern Kentucky region, the cabinet said it continues to investigate.
Cooper’s lawyer, Kelly Wiley, is incredulous that the cabinet is seeking to punish Cooper for an inadvertent error of visiting the girl after the case had been closed — especially given the other, more pressing problems in the region.
“She was acting to protect a child,” Wiley said. “If we had more Karey Coopers, we wouldn’t have all these missing cases and children at risk.”
The girls’ relatives who had contacted Cooper with concerns about the girl were shocked to learn she faces potential discipline.
“Karey went above and beyond the call of duty,” said one relative who is not being identified to protect the confidentiality of the girl. “She was only trying to help a child.”
Cooper said she was shocked to learn the new worker had closed the case, given the serious allegations of abuse and neglect involving her. The cabinet has since reopened the case with another worker, the girl’s relatives said.
Cooper outlined her concerns about the case in two recent letters to James, the cabinet’s commissioner of the Department for Community Based Services.
In her second letter on June 4, Cooper told James she believes she is experiencing retaliation from supervisors for her initial letter to the commissioner on May 19 in which she first reported her concerns about the case.
After her first letter to James, Cooper reported that her supervisors began investigating her time sheets and travel vouchers.
“I have never, nor will I ever, lie on my time sheet or travel voucher and to think that someone is digging to try to come up with dirt on me is extremely overwhelming and stressful,” Cooper said in the second letter. “I feel like I am being retaliated against for contacting you and a hostile work environment has been created to the point that it is affecting my health.”
Cooper said she has had no response from James.
Cabinet officials have said that all workers are encouraged to report concerns without fear of retaliation.
‘Way to go Karey!’
Before this incident, Cooper said she received good performance reviews in her two years as a social worker and was singled out for special praise in January after she managed to close out a huge number of cases she had been managing in order to move to the special investigations unit.
High caseloads continue to burden state social workers who are supposed to carry no more than 18 at a time, according to national accreditation standards. Cooper was no exception.
She was managing 102 “ongoing” cases involving families and children under cabinet supervision and was singled out for praise by a supervisor for finishing the work and closing them.
“Way to go, Karey!” an official exclaimed in an email after her immediate supervisor reported her success at finishing the cases.
Cooper also gets high praise from a foster family in Grant County for working to help a couple adopt three young children the state had placed with them.
“She is by far the best state social worker we have ever had,” said Shelli Beighle, who has been a foster parent with her husband, Vaughn, about five years. “She’s incredible. I wish the system had more Kareys.”
Beighle said Cooper is compassionate, accessible and worked hard to help the couple adopt the children.
“I have a very high regard for Karey,” she said. “The fact that she would get in trouble for checking on a child just seems crazy to me.”
‘She dropped the ball’
Cooper said in her letter to the commissioner that she first became involved with the family of the 7-year-old girl last year following allegations of drunkenness, drug use and violence in the home. She arranged for the girl to live with a relative temporarily while the family attempted to resolve its problems.
Eventually the child was returned to the home with the stipulation she receive counseling and a parent be present when the girl came home from school. In January, Cooper moved to the new, special investigations unit and another worker took over the case.
Concerned that the new worker seemed “frustrated” by the case and “did not want to be bothered,” Cooper said in her letter to James that she offered to help, an offer the new worker accepted.
Meanwhile, relatives of the girl continued to contact Cooper by email and phone with allegations of serious problems in the home. They contacted her, they said, because the new worker would not return calls, Cooper’s letter said.
One of the girl’s relatives said she didn’t believe the new worker took their concerns seriously, saying “She dropped the ball.”
In April, Cooper visited the girl at school after the complaints escalated, her letter said.
Only afterward, did she learn the worker had closed the case.
In her letter to James, Cooper acknowledged it was a violation of policy but asked the commissioner to consider all of the circumstances.
“I guess my problem is that I went out to help a child when nobody else would and now my job is in jeopardy,” she said. “I take my job very seriously and deeply care for the families on my caseload. I would never intentionally harm them.”