The girl in the basement
As reports of child abuse and neglect rise locally, the stakes are huge – for the children and for the community. The Eagle takes readers inside two cases to examine how the system works and to show the extent of the problem.
BY DEB GRUVER
The girl said she knew parents must discipline their children.
But the way the people who fostered and then adopted her allegedly punished her was not discipline, according to a doctor’s diagnosis introduced in court.
It was torture.
The adoptive mother beat the girl with a white stick or cut-up curtain rod, the girl’s brother told a school counselor. He also said their parents kept her in a locked room in the basement, made her drink hydrogen peroxide, punished her with hot showers and often fed her just bread for dinner.
At age 14, she weighed 66 pounds.
The girl “reported she is chained to the bed when the bed is clean and she forgets to take a bath because her parents do not want her to get the bed dirty. (She) said she sleeps on the concrete floor when this happens but parents make sure that (she) has enough room to lie down,” according to a petition filed in Sedgwick County District Court seeking an order of protection for her and three other children.
The girl said she had been hit on her arms, legs and back but never on the head. Her brother, though, reported she was beaten on the head every day with the curtain rod.
Police put the girl and three siblings in protective custody on March 28.
The parents denied the allegations and asked for a trial. In March, they told investigators with the state that the children were lying to get the parents in trouble and that the boy was upset that his computer had been taken away.
The parents, who adopted the girl 10 years ago when she was 4, were to have been her refuge from a biological mother whose neglect left her severely underweight and developmentally delayed.
But the report that prompted her removal from her home this spring was the ninth time in a little more than five years that someone had voiced concerns about her welfare to the Kansas Department for Children and Families.
Allegations of beatings, torture and neglect usually are shrouded in secrecy to protect children’s privacy.
The cases play out behind closed doors, sad tales told in a building tucked off Hydraulic just south of Kellogg.
The courthouse at 1900 E. Morris is where social workers, lawyers and judges come together to try to change children’s lives, one child-in-need-of-care petition at a time.
The stakes are huge – for the children and for society. Abused children are more likely to face eventual health risks that include alcoholism, drug abuse, depression and suicide. Studies show nearly a third of abused and neglected children are more likely to be arrested for violent crimes. And about 30 percent will later abuse their own children.
Reports of child abuse and neglect have risen by 25 percent in Sedgwick County in five years, to 12,366 in the fiscal year that ended in June 2013. After an initial assessment by the DCF, just less than 60 percent of reports were assigned to local social workers for further review in fiscal year 2013.
Though the cases usually are shielded from public view, Sedgwick County District Judge Tim Henderson gave The Eagle access to child-in-need-of-care petitions and hearings earlier this year for two reasons: to be transparent about how the system works and to show the public the extent of child neglect and abuse.
The Eagle is following this case and others through the system. To protect the children’s privacy, The Eagle is not identifying them or their parents.
“People don’t want to believe this kind of stuff happens here,” Sedgwick County District Chief Judge James Fleetwood said.
It’s a delicate balance protecting children’s privacy while “making sure that policymakers and citizens and leaders understand truly what these kids are dealing with and what the issues are,” he said. “If we’re only seeing through a glass darkly kind of thing, we’re not really seeing what the depth of the issues are.”
Fleetwood said he wants to believe “there’s not a person in the community who wouldn’t want to do something if they knew about it.”
“We’re humans,” he said. “We care about children. ... How could this possibly happen? What could I do about this?”
Child-in-need-of-care cases start when someone – maybe a teacher or nurse from school or a family member or friend – reports that a parent or caretaker is suspected of neglecting or abusing a child.
Sometimes a child will seek help on his or her own, as was the case in January when a 12-year-old boy with bruises walked into a Walgreens store in Wichita and told a stranger he was scared to go home.
In the case of the 14-year-old girl, someone called the DCF at her school principal’s request.
On March 28, social worker Kristi McNeal interviewed the counselor and the girl at school.
The counselor reported that the girl had a history of blunt-force bruising in her mouth and had been seen by a dentist. The counselor also said that the girl had stolen books from school and that her brother had told the counselor their parents hit her when she brought library books home.
The girl was locked in her room, the boy said, and her “door lock is turned around backwards so the lock is on the outside doorknob,” court documents say.
The boy reported that there was an alarm on the girl’s room in the basement. He said that he disarmed the lock to give the girl bread for dinner when his mother told him to and that it was a lot of responsibility for him.
The boy also “reported that (the girl) is given bread, water and hydrogen peroxide,” court documents say. “He explained that (the girl) drinks hydrogen peroxide because she used to have bad stomach aches.”
He “reported parents used to chain (the girl) to her bed so she would not leave and (the girl) would at times sleep in the rabbit cage,” court documents say.
The boy said the parents put the girl in a bathtub and shower without clothes and ran hot water on her as punishment for stealing. He said the last time it had happened was a week earlier.
The girl said she was not punished with hot showers. She said that her brother stood in the bathroom with her until she turned on the water because her parents didn’t think she showered.
The boy also said that his parents called him “cuss words” and “stupid” almost daily.
The girl told investigators that her parents didn’t work and that her father “often lies around in bed with a bag of Cheetos.”
After someone reports abuse or neglect, the DCF begins investigating. The Exploited and Missing Child Unit, a joint operation of the Wichita Police Department, the Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office and the DCF, also may investigate, as it did in this case.
If law enforcement officers think a child is at immediate risk, they will place the child in protective custody. They determine the most appropriate placement on a case-by-case basis. That may include a relative’s home, another caretaker’s home or a state-licensed placement, said Brian Dempsey, director of protection and prevention services for the DCF. Many times, they use the Wichita Children’s Home, the only emergency home for children in the county.
Police or social workers may ask the Sedgwick County District Attorney’s Office to file a petition that seeks a court order declaring the child in need of care.
On April 1, the district attorney’s office filed a child-in-need-of-care petition for the girl and three siblings.
Temporary-custody hearings must take place within 72 hours, not including weekends or state holidays, after a child goes into protective custody. The court appoints a guardian ad litem – someone who will represent the best interests of the child. Parents either hire a lawyer or the court appoints one.
The parents in this case waived their right to a temporary-custody hearing on April 2, then appeared in court May 16 to ask Sedgwick County District Judge Christopher Magana for a trial.
The father wore sunglasses or tinted glasses and stared straight ahead most of the time. He occasionally conferred with his lawyer, Michael Cleary. A few times during the hearing, his wife leaned over to speak to him.
The state had cut off supervised visitation with all of the children, and the parents asked whether the boys could attend the graduation of an older child, who was not involved in the case.
Assistant District Attorney Mark Chotimongkol objected, saying the boys would get limited benefit from attending the ceremony.
“It’s not for their benefit,” he told Magana. “It’s all selfishly for the parents’ desires.”
The social worker from Saint Francis Community Services, who would not give her name to The Eagle, mentioned the doctor’s diagnosis.
“The report we have is child torture,” she said. “That’s a very unusual diagnosis.”
Magana asked to see that report and psychological examinations of the parents in the next few weeks. He set an interim review in the case for June 20 and a trial for Aug. 4.
And he said the boys could not attend the graduation ceremony. The father lowered his head, shaking it.
Asked later whether the parents would talk to The Eagle, Cleary said he was sure they would want to, but, under his advice, they would not.
The 14-year-old girl experienced neglect at an early age.
Her biological mother once left her alone in a crib for 16 hours, according to a petition filed in 2001. Jo Shaver, a social services investigator, said she saw the girl eat old dried food off the carpet. She expressed concern about the cleanliness of the house, which had bugs and mice, and about the mother’s ability to provide a good home. The girl’s older sister already had been removed from the home.
At 17 months, the girl was in the 5th percentile for height and weight. Shaver expressed concern that she was not yet walking.
A doctor examined the girl on March 15, 2001.
“I suspect her failure to thrive and developmental delay may be due to psychosocial factors,” the doctor reported.
The parents now accused of abusing the girl adopted her in 2004, records show.
The father told investigators that he and his wife had been foster parents for 16 years.
Theresa Freed, spokeswoman for the DCF, said the agency could not comment on a specific case because of privacy concerns. But she said the DCF and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment evaluate potential foster parents.
“We assess the physical environment and the prospective foster parents’ abilities to care for children,” she said in an e-mailed statement.
Foster parents must undergo background checks for child abuse and criminal history, Freed said. Training addresses how to parent children who experience the trauma of removal and allows the potential foster parent and trainer to assess whether the potential foster parent is capable of meeting the needs of foster children.
Potential foster parents also undergo a home assessment that examines parenting styles and their capacity to protect the child.
“If they meet all of the criteria and receive a license, they are eligible for placements,” Freed said.
Foster parents who adopt undergo this process, she said. The DCF then would sign the consent for adoption, and a judge would ultimately sign off on it.
“It is troubling to learn of any alleged child abuse or neglect,” Freed said in the statement. “It is our goal to prevent such tragedies and improve the child welfare system so that every child in foster care is placed with a loving family that will protect him/her from harm.”
Reports made before
The petition involving the girl notes eight other reports made to the state about her.
• On Jan. 9, 2009, someone reported the girl came to school with a large scratch on her face and a bruise on her left cheek. “It was also reported that (the girl) was very thin, often asked for food at school and gets in trouble with her parents when they find out she asks for food,” the report says. The DCF found the allegations to be unsubstantiated and said no services were needed.
Freed said unsubstantiated means that after assessing a report of alleged child abuse or neglect, the DCF finds that the facts or circumstances do not provide “clear and convincing” evidence to meet the legal definition of abuse or neglect.
• On Jan. 27, 2009, someone alleged that the girl had sores on her mouth, tongue and lip so painful it hurt her to eat. After an assessment, the DCF determined the allegations were unsubstantiated and that services were not needed.
• On May 13, 2010, someone reported that the girl needed new glasses, that the parents had refused to provide them and that she “was made to sleep in the bathtub as punishment for wetting the bed.” Again, the DCF determined the allegations were unsubstantiated and services were not needed.
• On Nov. 5, 2010, someone reported that the girl was without proper care and that her parents were overwhelmed by her behavior. “The family refused services, and the case was closed,” the petition says.
• On Feb. 8, 2011, someone reported that during a dental exam at school, a dentist found evidence of blunt-force trauma to the girl’s jaw. The girl “reported she did not know how it occurred or who/what caused it,” according to the petition. The DCF determined the allegations were unsubstantiated, but the parents began receiving therapy services.
• On May 26, 2011, someone reported that the girl “was without proper care and control. It was reported that (she) has missed school, is treated unfairly by parents and would be isolated for the summer,” the petition says. The parents continued services through the Wichita Child Guidance Center.
• On April 19, 2012, someone reported that the girl “has red marks on her face and was sleep-deprived. It was also reported that (she) is a bed wetter and that parents are keeping her awake late into the night and it is affecting her school work,” the petition said. The DCF determined the allegations were unsubstantiated. The family refused services, and the case was closed.
• On Oct. 30, 2012, someone reported that the mother hit the girl with a baseball bat. The DCF determined the allegations were unsubstantiated and services were not needed.
The DCF received 11,074 reports regarding Sedgwick County children in the first 10 months of this fiscal year, through April 30. That’s a 5.4 percent increase over the first 10 months of the 2013 fiscal year. The DCF assigned 6,359 of the cases for further review.
In those 10 months, the court ordered 389 children removed from their homes.
Those who step in to help children can’t determine whether there are more cases of abuse or just more people reporting it.
“We would hope that it means that more people are aware of what child abuse is and they’re being more proactive in making a report,” said Diana Schunn, executive director of the Child Advocacy Center of Sedgwick County.
The majority of reports are screened without filing a child-in-need-of-care case, said Ron Paschal, deputy district attorney and head of the juvenile division for the Sedgwick County DA’s office.
“They may find (an allegation) doesn’t meet the definition of abuse or neglect,” Paschal said.
Often, the state offers services such as parenting classes instead of filing a case when the allegation “doesn’t rise to the level of placing the child into the system.”
“Filing a case is the last resort,” Paschal said.
Social workers and prosecutors have different mentalities, he said.
“The social worker’s mentality is ‘Let’s keep the family together,’ ” he said. “Our side is to err on the safety of the kid.”
Lawyers in his office are sometimes surprised by the number of previous reports in a case, he said, and are baffled about why a petition wasn’t requested earlier.
“Occasionally we have cases where we’re shocked, when we see it for the first time, we’re like ‘What the hell?’ ” he said. “We can decide to return a kid if he’s alive. If we make a mistake on the other side, we can’t, can we?”
Freed said “there is a process that we go through to ensure the safety of kids, and that involves working closely with the courts and law enforcement. DCF’s top priority is keeping children in the home when it’s safe to do so. In doing that, we offer a lot of services and try to keep the kids in the home.”
Prosecutors, police and social workers have to decide what degree of intervention is warranted, said Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett.
“Are they likely to be harmed or injured?” is a deciding question, Bennett said.
If the answer is yes, a child-in-need-of-care case is filed.
“What we’re left with is the worst of the worst,” Bennett said.
When police and McNeal, the social worker, went to the girl’s house to investigate, the mother would not let them in at first, saying that her husband was sick and on oxygen and that she was not feeling well either, court documents say.
Investigators went to the girl’s room, which had no windows and a concrete floor, court documents say. The mother told them that it used to be a storage room.
McNeal saw a small box for an alarm system on the top left corner of the bedroom door, the petition says.
She also noted seeing a 5-gallon bucket in the room. The mother said the family was remodeling and had been using the bucket for mud for dry walling.
“We need to get out of here,” the mother said several times, the petition says.
On March 28, court documents say, McNeal interviewed the children’s adoptive paternal grandmother by phone, and she said the younger boys were with her. She would not say where she was and refused to take the children to the Wichita Children’s Home.
Two hours later, McNeal received a call from a police officer saying the parents had pulled the boys from school and he was unable to put the children in protective custody. The police officer also reported that the father had told him the children’s adoptive paternal grandfather would take the children to Missouri.
“You’re not getting the others,” the father told McNeal, according to court documents.
Eventually, the state was able to put all four children in custody, a prosecutor said.
The mother told McNeal that “she would like to have (the girl) removed because she causes trouble and has caused the family nothing but problems,” court documents say.
“Even (a) girls home refused to take care of (her),” the father said in court documents.
In April, the Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office arrested the father and booked him into jail, records show, on suspicion of criminal damage to property. He was accused of kicking the window out of the frame on one of the back-seat doors of a sheriff’s car.
Sheriff’s Lt. David Mattingly said deputies assisting detectives were serving a search warrant at the family’s residence at the time.
During the May 16 court hearing, the parents’ lawyer told the judge they would like to see the boys.
“The boys must think they’ve been abandoned,” Cleary said.
The Saint Francis Community Services social worker said law enforcement and the doctor who diagnosed the girl as a victim of torture recommended the parents have no contact with any of the children.
“There was severe neglect,” the social worker said. “She diagnosed her with child torture. She doesn’t feel these parents would be appropriate with any children.”