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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Grandfather to push for change in Kansas custody law

BY TIM POTTER
The Wichita Eagle

Scot Perry is not a professional lobbyist.

He's an unemployed aircraft parts inspector. But the 42-year-old Wichita man is about to become a lobbyist of sorts for a personal reason.

It's for his grandson, Gerald McGee, who at 7 months old became a homicide victim.

The grandfather will push for a change in state law to give the child protection system more time to determine a child's fate after police have put a child in temporary protective custody. The system is responsible for determining whether a child has been abused or neglected, whether he can safely go back to his family or whether he needs to be placed in state custody.

Now, investigators and social workers have 72 hours or three days to determine the facts, decide on a temporary placement and hold a hearing if the state is seeking custody.

Perry wants the period to be extended to at least two weeks. In his view, it would give authorities enough time to thoroughly investigate and determine what's best for a child.

Such a change, he said, could have saved Gerald's life.

Wichita Deputy Police Chief Tom Stolz and Deputy District Attorney Ron Paschal agree with Perry's general thrust — that more time would help ensure that children are safe.

Because of Perry's intervention — he drove Gerald to a police station after he saw bruises on his face — Gerald was put in protective custody. By the end of the 72 hours, the 5-month-old boy was released to his mother. Three weeks later, on Jan. 19, an EMS crew rushed him from the Goddard mobile home where he was staying. A hospital examination found severe brain injuries.

Gerald never recovered from his injuries and died two months later. A coroner ruled his death a homicide.

Stolz, the deputy police chief, said the 72-hour window "does pressure law enforcement to ... go in and get quick investigations done." He said he would like to see 24 hours added, for a total of 96 hours.

The goal is to have a reasonable amount of time for investigating. But it takes time to sort through cases that often involve complicated, sometimes volatile, family dynamics, Stolz said.

"You don't want to take a child away from a house for a minute longer than you have to," he said.

"We're not in the business of splitting up and fragmenting families."

In recent years, parents across Kansas have mounted a vocal, organized effort to convince legislators that police, state social workers and judges have been too quick to take steps leading to removing children from their families. They contend the state has been heavy-handed. They have accused foster parents of doing more harm than good. The system deals with difficult choices: Removing a child from his family, even for a few days, can traumatize him and his parents. Not removing a child, or not doing it soon enough, can lead to his death.

Paschal, the prosecutor who heads the district attorney's Juvenile Division, provided written testimony to legislators in 2006 arguing that 72 hours wasn't enough to determine the facts and viable placement options.

Paschal wants prosecutors to have the option of asking a judge for an additional 72 hours in certain cases — doubling the investigative period.

"We would give all the fact-finders more time to determine the facts" and figure out if a child could be placed with a relative, he said.

Some cases are so complex that even doubling the time might not be sufficient, he said.

"We want to get the kids to where they need to be, as soon as possible, safely," Paschal said. "A child can always be returned home — if they're safe."

How it unfolded

The story of how Perry became a lobbyist can be traced to a emotionally wrenching night, Dec. 28, 2009.

The Wichita police Patrol South substation sits about a mile from Perry's home. Twice on the drive to the substation, Perry stopped, turned around.

The thing he was about to do was a painful choice: give his grandson to authorities and not know when he might see the baby again.

But he had to, he says, because he felt his grandson was in danger around his mother, Courtney McGee, then 19.

The reason why Perry was alarmed: Gerald, only 5 months old, had several bruises on his face.

"To me and everybody else that had seen him," Perry said, it looked like abuse.

McGee and Perry's teenage son, Dustin — Gerald's father — were not a couple at the time. The parents lived apart and shared time with their infant son.

A few days earlier on Dec. 23, Perry and his wife, Terri, picked up their grandson and McGee and went to Towne East so Gerald could sit on Santa's lap.

When the Perrys left Gerald and McGee at a Goddard home that Dec. 23 night, the boy looked fine to them.

The next day, Christmas Eve, McGee said Gerald had been slamming his face against his crib, the Perrys say.

On Christmas Day, when the Perrys had Gerald back with them, they saw bruises on his face and took pictures of the marks. McGee asked to have her son back. The Perrys debated what to do.

Perry decided to take his grandson to the patrol station, thinking he would be safe that way.

Because Gerald and his mother lived in Goddard, in Sedgwick County, a sheriff's officer came to the police station to get Gerald. About 10 o'clock that night outside the station, Perry leaned into the deputy's patrol car, where Gerald was strapped in.

Perry told Gerald he was sorry for what was happening, kissed him on the cheek and told him "G-Pa loves you."

Gerald — with marks on his face — smiled back.

After Perry left the substation and went back to his family, he said, "We all just cried and cried and cried."

Perry trusted authorities to sort it out.

After the protective custody period ended, Gerald was given back to McGee, and services were being provided to her through the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services (SRS), a police official told The Eagle.

The Perrys have said that the decision to send Gerald back to his mother appeared to rest partly with a doctor's finding that abuse couldn't be ruled in or out.

Prosecutors still had concerns about Gerald's safety and his injuries and disagreed with an SRS plan to put Gerald with his mother, Paschal, the deputy district attorney, has told The Eagle. Prosecutors wanted more investigation by SRS, including an evaluation by a nationally recognized local pediatrician. "We were told (by SRS) that that was not going to happen," Paschal said.

SRS says it can't comment on the case because of confidentiality laws.

Shortly after 6 p.m. Jan. 19 — about three weeks after Gerald was returned to McGee — she called 911 to say he was vomiting and having seizures and was not responsive, records say. An EMS crew rushed Gerald to the hospital.

A week later, prosecutors charged McGee with aggravated battery, accusing her of intentionally causing "great bodily harm" to him on or about Jan. 19.

Months passed. Then, this past Wednesday, under a plea agreement, McGee pleaded guilty to aggravated endangering of her son and now faces a Jan. 12 sentencing where she could face from probation up to 17 months in prison.

The prosecutor, Deputy District Attorney Marc Bennett, noted that the crime she pleaded to occurred before the time cited in the original charge. The time frame for the endangerment was from Dec. 24 through Jan. 18 — or up to the day before he went to the hospital with the severe injuries.

McGee's guilty plea didn't answer the question of who caused the traumatic brain injury cited in an autopsy report.

The homicide investigation continues, and "no suspects have been eliminated at this point," Bennett said.

McGee's attorney, Linda Priest, said McGee has been devastated by her son's death and has not had a chance to tell her side of the story.

'They let us down'

Perry, the grandfather, says the system failed Gerald.

"We trusted that they (SRS) would investigate and do the right thing, and they let us down."

He plans to approach legislators on a regular basis after they convene in January and push for a longer temporary custody period.

"Just explain the story, tell them what happened and tell them alternatives.

"I have to," he said.

"If it can help one more baby ... it's worth it."

Reach Tim Potter at 316-268-6684 or tpotter@wichitaeagle.com.

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