An 18-month-old boy’s drowning death in a bathtub last week is now being investigated as a possible homicide, police told The Kansas City Star on Wednesday.
But even more shocking to authorities is that their suspect is a 5-year-old girl.
Kansas City police and local juvenile court officials said they could not remember ever investigating such a serious case involving such a young suspect.
“I’ve been here 26 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Mary Marquez, a juvenile officer with Jackson County Family Court.
A national expert said cases involving a 5-year-old homicide suspect are extremely rare — so rare that statistics are hard to find. Available FBI data show that the agency started tracking homicide suspects from age 5 to 8 in 2006. Since then, just three suspects have been counted in that category.
“I’d be surprised if you had one (5-year-old) every five years,” said Melissa Sickmund, chief of systems research at the National Center for Juvenile Justice. “It’s a unique set of circumstances and a very sad set of circumstances.”
The victim, 18-month-old Jermane Johnson Jr., lived in the St. Louis area but was being cared for by relatives in the 2600 block of Elmwood Avenue in Kansas City. He had been staying at the house for several weeks, police said.
His father, Jermane Johnson Sr., couldn’t be reached by phone Wednesday. But on his Facebook wall, Johnson posted this note Monday: “I just got ask the hardest question that no parent should never answer. What kind of caskets do I want to put my son in.”
Later, he asked for donations to help take his son’s body home.
According to police:
On Friday, an adult left a 16-year-old girl, who reportedly has mental disabilities, in charge of several younger children, including Jermane, so the adult could pick up a relative of Jermane’s at a bus stop.
The relative had come into town from St. Louis to retrieve Jermane and take him home.
While no adults were at the home, the 5-year-old girl allegedly dragged Jermane into the tub, which had not been drained after other children took baths.
Police initially looked at the case as an accidental drowning. But the 5-year-old’s statements to specially trained social workers floored police.
She allegedly indicated that she didn’t like the toddler because he “made too much noise,” and “cried too much,” police said. She indicated that she drowned him on purpose, police said.
Does she actually understand the meaning of drowning? Or the permanence of death?
Sickmund, of the National Center for Juvenile Justice, says no.
“The mind of a 5-year-old is not really capable of formalizing intent for homicide,” she said. “There’s research that would have you question if a 14-year-old should be fully responsible.”
Marquez, of Jackson County’s Family Court, agreed and said authorities must prove intent even in juvenile court.
“With such a young age, there is no way you could prove intent,” she said.
Some states have minimum ages at which children are assumed to have criminal responsibility. Missouri does not have a set minimum age, but Marquez said the age officials typically use is around 9 or 10, although each case is unique. Officials consider the child’s history, age and crime before making a decision, she said.
“We do have kids as young as 8 or 9 on diversion for shoplifting because they understand that is wrong,” she said. “But for children younger than 9, we wouldn’t really consider diversion.”
Diversion allows juveniles to meet with a court worker who helps them stay out of trouble instead of facing a judge.
Younger children are evaluated for mental health or other services, Marquez said. She said she received a referral from the Missouri Children’s Division for assistance about the child in question and has filed a child-in-need-of-care petition.
The petition, if granted, would give the court jurisdiction to see what services the child needs. It may or may not involve removing the child from the home.
Marquez said she could not divulge where the child was staying, but police said they never arrested the girl.
Sickmund said services can reveal problems within the home and root causes of juvenile delinquency.
“If the child was wanting to harm somebody, why would the child think that was the right thing to do?” she asked.
Research shows that juvenile offenders who come into the system younger than 13 are more likely to offend again, Sickmund said.
“So if you see kids at that age, don’t ignore them,” she said. “Pay attention to them because you are very likely to see them again. You can help them now as opposed to punishing them later.”
The Jackson County medical examiner’s office has not issued a final ruling on the case, so police have not yet counted it as a homicide. Police said they sent their supplemental reports to the office after the girl was interviewed.
Police said they are still looking into other aspects of the case, including the welfare of other children in the home and the decision to leave the children alone Friday. Police were called to the drowning just before midnight Friday.