As Wichita police and the state mounted investigations Friday into the death of a 10-month-old girl who had been left in a hot car outside her foster home, her grandmother put the tragedy in her own words.
“They tell you when your kids go into the system they’re going to be safe, nothing’s going to happen. They promise you,” said the baby’s maternal grandmother, Cindy Poe. “They’re supposed to take care of your kids. And you never ever expect this to happen.”
Poe said she doesn’t understand how the baby she called “Little Chubby,” “Little Butterball” or “Grandma’s Bunny” could be left for at least two hours in a hot car.
On Friday morning, Wichita police confirmed they had arrested Seth Michael Jackson, 29, on suspicion of aggravated endangerment of a child. Jackson and another man were foster parents at the home.
A few hours later, Phyllis Gilmore, secretary of the state Department for Children and Families, announced that the agency had launched its own investigation into the death.
The DCF said an inspection would be conducted of all foster homes associated with TFI, the contractor involved in placing the girl in the home on South Topeka.
TFI spokesman Brenden Long said in an e-mailed statement that the contractor is “deeply saddened by the death of the child and is fully cooperating with the investigation and the Department for Children and Families.”
Long said in the e-mail that TFI would be personally contacting each of its sponsored foster families and providing them with “heat safety tips.”
“I am absolutely devastated by this child’s death that should have been prevented,” Gilmore said in a news release. She said the DCF is working closely with law enforcement.
TFI is a former contractor with the state, but its contract was not renewed in July 2013, she said. However, it is still allowed to sponsor state-licensed foster homes. All future foster care placements with TFI have been suspended during the investigation, according to Gilmore.
She said the state’s actions involving TFI don’t necessarily mean there is a wider problem.
Still, she said, the “last thing we want” is for children who have been put into foster care because they have been harmed to be “traumatized in their foster care.”
Poe said the girl was born in Topeka with drugs in her system and stayed 10 days in the pediatric intensive care unit before going to the foster parents.
Poe said the baby and her two older sisters ended up in the same foster home in Wichita and said that the foster parents seemed to take good care of the children. When she saw the girls, she said, they were beautifully dressed.
The two men were trying to adopt the 10-month-old; they already had two adopted children. They were caring for six children in all, ranging in age from 10 months to 18 years.
Donald Robison, who lives next to the foster home where the girl died, said the foster children staying there always seemed to have clean clothing and plenty of groceries.
“These kids were their life,” he said of the two men caring for the children. “That’s what they lived for. You could tell.”
At the foster home, the gray Dodge Charger in which the girl died still sat on the street in front of the home on Friday. The house and lawn looked well-maintained. Potted plants and hanging plants lined the porch. Another neighbor, Sandy Jessogne, said that the two men had fixed up the house after moving in a few years ago.
At times, different foster children lived at the home, the neighbors said.
On Friday morning, at a briefing at City Hall, police Lt. Todd Ojile gave the following account about the girl’s death.
At about 6:41 p.m. Thursday, an emergency dispatcher received a call from a man in the 1500 block of South Topeka. The girl had been brought into the house by a man who lived at the residence, and the child was pronounced dead at 6:49 p.m. Police did not release the name of the child, saying all relatives had not been contacted.
According to Ojile, investigators learned that the child had been left strapped into a car seat in the rear of a four-door sedan with closed tinted windows that had been parked in front of the house for 2 to 2 1/2 hours. Two men, ages 29 and 26, live at the house, and they are foster parents, Ojile said.
Jackson had picked up the 10-month-old from a baby sitter at about 4 p.m. and somehow forgot she remained in the car, Ojile said. Another child also had been in the vehicle but did not remain in the car.
The second man was in the backyard of the residence and thought all the children were downstairs in the home, Ojile said.
Later, something Jackson saw on television “keyed on him” to remember, and he and the other man rushed out and found the 10-month-old dead in the vehicle, Ojile said.
Both of the foster parents appeared “extremely upset” after emergency crews arrived, Ojile said. He said police don’t expect any more arrests.
Investigators hope to present their findings to prosecutors early next week, who will decide whether to file charges against Jackson.
The child was in the car “probably right around the hottest time of the day” on Thursday, said Brad Ketcham, a National Weather Service meteorologist. At 6 p.m. the temperature was 89 degrees.
The temperature inside a closed car can rise quickly, increasing as much as 20 degrees within the first 10 minutes, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration.
The girl was the 18th child to die in a hot car so far this year in the U.S., according to Kids and Cars, an advocacy group based in Kansas City, Mo. She was the 10th child to die in a hot car in Kansas since 2000.
Contributing: Stan Finger and Matt Riedl of The Eagle