Crime & Courts

January 31, 2010

Wichita grandparents say SRS failed to protect grandson

On Dec. 28, the paternal grandfather of a 5-month-old boy took him to a Wichita police substation after seeing several bruises on the infant's face.

On Dec. 28, the paternal grandfather of a 5-month-old boy took him to a Wichita police substation after seeing several bruises on the infant's face.

The baby stayed in police protective custody for a couple of days before being returned to his mother, police and the grandparents say. Then on Jan. 19 — about three weeks after the baby was back with his mother — he was admitted to a Wichita hospital with serious brain injuries. His grandparents don't expect him to survive.

On Thursday, prosecutors charged his mother, 19-year-old Courtney D. McGee, with aggravated battery and felony child abuse, alleging that she beat, shook or injured her baby in a severe and cruel way. She remained in jail under a $100,000 bond. Her attorney could not be reached for comment.

The Sedgwick County District Attorney's Office did not agree with an SRS plan for releasing the boy after he was in protective custody, and prosecutors called for a follow-up investigation that SRS did not pursue, a district attorney's official said Friday.

And now the grandparents fault the child-protection system for returning the baby to his mother.

After an initial investigation involving an SRS caseworker could not rule in abuse or rule it out, the system should have erred on the side of caution and kept the boy away from his mother until the situation could be investigated further, the grandparents say.

"It was so preventable," the grandfather said.

For privacy reasons, the grandparents asked that their names not be used. They said they were speaking for their 18-year-old son, the baby's father.

SRS is criticized

Their case is the latest of three ongoing cases across the state where families have publicly accused the state Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services (SRS) of failing to protect children who were killed or severely injured.

At the same time, some of the loudest criticism of SRS continues to come from people who contend that the agency wrongly removes many children from their families — the opposite of the grandparents' concerns.

SRS spokeswoman Michelle Ponce said Friday that in each case, the agency "must weigh the emotional harm to the child from being removed from the home against the likelihood of harm if he were to remain in the home. It's always a difficult decision."

A timeline

The grandfather provided this timeline: On Dec. 23, the grandparents picked up their grandson and his mother and went to a mall to have pictures taken with Santa. When the grandparents dropped off the mother and child later at her Goddard home, "everything was fine," he said.

The next day, Dec. 24, the mother told the grandparents that her son had been slamming his face against his crib, the grandparents said.

On Christmas Day, when the grandparents picked up the boy, they saw bruises on his face and took pictures of the marks.

"It was bad enough that everyone that had seen it wanted to cry," the grandfather said. "It was obvious what had happened ... some type of blunt force to his face or squeezing or something."

After debating about the situation with family and close friends, on the night of Dec. 28, after the mother requested that her son be returned home, the grandfather took his grandson to the Patrol South station on South Broadway, the grandfather said. A sheriff's deputy came to pick up the child so he could be put in protective custody.

"That was absolutely the hardest thing I had ever done. Because I knew it would be a long time before I would ever get to see him again," the grandfather said. "But I knew it was the right thing. I had to do it for him."

That way, the boy would be safe, he says he thought at the time.

He said his grandson remained in protective custody until around Dec. 31, when the baby went back to his mother.

Capt. Russell Leeds, with the Wichita-Sedgwick County Exploited and Missing Child Unit, confirmed that the 5-month-old boy went back to his mother after being in protective custody for up to 72 hours, and that services were being provided to her through SRS.

DA's perspective

Ron Paschal, deputy district attorney for the juvenile division, said the DA's Office had "ongoing concerns" about the safety of the child and the "nature and extent and location of injuries," and did not approve of the SRS plan for releasing the boy after he was in protective custody.

Instead, prosecutors requested additional investigation by SRS, including an evaluation by a nationally recognized local pediatrician, Paschal said.

"We were told (by SRS) that that was not going to happen" and that the SRS was going to end its investigation, he said.

Paschal said that the DA's stance on the case was in line with its philosophy in such cases: "We follow the law ... but it's our position and policy to err on the side of protecting the child."

Ponce, the SRS spokeswoman, said she doesn't know details of the case and can't comment on it because of confidentiality laws.

Generally, she said, during an investigation after a child is put in protective custody, the social worker assigned to the case would speak to "anybody who would have pertinent information," possibly including a doctor, and recommend to the court whether the child should be removed from his home.

Family's perspective

The decision to return the boy to his mother appears to have rested on a state social worker's relying on a doctor's finding that abuse couldn't be ruled in or out, according to the grandmother.

"The medical system also failed him," the grandfather said. There is evidence of old injuries, he said. "They missed it."

Until it could be sorted out, the baby could have remained with his grandparents or been kept at a foster home, the grandmother said.

"That's all I ask: Be sure. And if they were sure, we wouldn't be doing this."

She said the SRS caseworker told her that "hindsight is 20/20," that the caseworker "wished she would have known then what she knew now," that a doctor couldn't prove it was abuse and couldn't prove it wasn't "and that was a big part of her assessment."

"And her I can forgive," the grandmother said. "A very tough job she has. But even though it's a tough job ... caution should go with the child... . It was a bad call, and she knows it was a bad all. I can't imagine how she's going to feel if he dies."

The grandfather said: "I have seen this woman's face, and you can tell she's tore up about it."

The grandparents say their grandson has sustained multiple "bleeds" in his brain and has been breathing with the help of a ventilator.

Although the grandparents say they have been praying for a miracle, they don't expect their grandson to survive.

"He's going to pass, it's just a matter of when," his grandfather said Friday.

"We just know he's going to be in God's hands, that's all we know," his grandmother added.

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