EL DORADO — In the public arena, the disappearance of an 11-year-old boy has played out as a possible homicide involving child abuse allegations.
Adam Herrman disappeared from his adoptive parents' Towanda home in 1999 and hasn't been heard from since.
In the years before he disappeared, Derby police and the state's child welfare agency investigated reports that he was possibly abused. The county's chief prosecutor has said his adoptive parents are suspects in a case that could result in murder charges, with the underlying crime being child abuse.
But in Butler County District Court on Friday, an attorney for the county prosecutor and an attorney for the state's child welfare agency told a judge they have not determined that Adam is dead or that he had died from child abuse.
Without such a declaration, District Judge Mike Ward said that by law he had to rule against media requests for records on Adam held by the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services. Ward said that for now, SRS has to keep the records closed to the public.
The Eagle; KWCH, Channel 12; and the Associated Press are seeking the records under an exception in state law that allows information to be disclosed when a child dies or nearly dies as a result of abuse or neglect.
Lyndon Vix, an attorney representing the media in their records requests, said later Friday that legislators put the exception in the law to help determine whether SRS is doing its child-protection job.
The amendment stems from a 2002 case involving a boy who had been in SRS custody before his adoptive parents were accused of killing him.
Ward said he could change his stance on the records if the case results in a homicide charge involving alleged abuse.
Grand jury is option
Butler County Attorney Jan Satterfield said after the hearing that it's too early to say whether she will file charges. That decision won't be made until after she officially receives the case from sheriff's investigators later this month and has a chance to review the details, Satterfield said.
Satterfield said one option she has is presenting the case to a grand jury, which would meet in secret.
Butler County detectives are still working on the case, Sheriff Craig Murphy said.
"We're tying up loose ends, and about the time that we think we've got it ready to package and take to her (Satterfield), that's when another question" arises that investigators have to answer, he said.
"I'm not going to declare this thing one way or another. I'm not going to declare it a homicide or child abuse," said Murphy, who did not attend the hearing. "We're trying to answer the question so a declaration can be made."
Stances at hearing
At the hearing, Judge Ward asked Norm Manley, the attorney representing Satterfield, whether there has been an official determination of a death or near-death involving child abuse.
Manley said that while authorities have not heard from Adam, who would be 21 now, they have yet to call his death a homicide or say it stems from child abuse.
Ward posed the same question to SRS attorney Roger McDaniel, who said the agency has not made such a finding and was relying on the court to decide whether the records should be released.
McDaniel said SRS was taking a neutral stance on the records and is "generally in favor of openness."
Vix, the attorney representing the media, argued that SRS has determined that Adam died and is the subject of a homicide investigation. He also contended that someone is presumed dead when they have not been heard from in years.
After the hearing, Vix contended that SRS would not have taken initial steps toward releasing the records if it didn't consider the disappearance a death involving abuse.
One of the steps that SRS took toward releasing the records was sending notices to "affected individuals," including Adam's health providers, Vix said.
Four health providers -- Wichita Child Guidance Center, COMCARE, Wichita Clinic and Prairie View -- have filed objections to any records release to the media, saying it would violate patient privacy.
Earlier this year, Satterfield, the prosecutor, had obtained a temporary order to block the release. She had contended that public disclosure would reveal witnesses and interfere with the investigation.
But on Friday, Manley, her attorney, said she no longer opposed the release. However, Manley also asked the judge to consider whether releasing the records would violate the privacy of people mentioned in them.
Authorities discovered Adam's disappearance late last year, have found no sign that he's alive and have repeatedly searched for his remains.
Satterfield has said that Adam's adoptive parents, Doug and Valerie Herrman, are suspects.
Several of Valerie Herrman's close relatives have said they saw her abuse Adam over the years. She says they are lying. The Herrmans and their lawyers say they are innocent.
SRS has confirmed that a few years before Adam disappeared, he spent two days at the Wichita Children's Home, then was returned home. Valerie Herrman said in an interview that Adam was temporarily removed from his home after she spanked him with a belt and a school counselor saw bruises.
The Herrmans said that he ran away in early May 1999 and didn't return after Valerie Herrman spanked him again with a belt -- and that they did not report it because they feared the spanking would lead authorities to take Adam and two younger siblings from them.