NORTH NEWTON — More than two months before a 19-month-old boy died with fractures and extensive bruising, the state child welfare agency received a report from a neighbor who heard a man yelling at the boy followed by the child screaming.
The Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services then found no indication that the child had been physically or emotionally harmed, an SRS report says.
SRS did not inform local law enforcement agencies of the report, which is upsetting and frustrating, Harvey County Sheriff T. Walton said Tuesday.
"We would have knocked on the door" of the North Newton duplex long before an emergency crew found the child not breathing Saturday afternoon, Walton said.
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"Any report like that we always investigate," Walton said.
On Tuesday afternoon, Harvey County authorities charged Chad Carr, 26, with two counts of aggravated battery and two counts of child abuse for injuries to the 19-month-old, Walton said.
Carr has been described as the boyfriend of the toddler's mother.
More charges could be filed, Walton said. Authorities have yet to make a final determination on charges because full autopsy results are not yet available, he said.
Authorities have yet to release the child's name.
The toddler had older and newer injuries, authorities said. His injuries included a broken left collar bone and broken right lower leg and bruising from "head to toe," according to authorities.
According to an SRS finding dated Jan. 21, a copy of which Walton received Tuesday, the state agency found that the neighbor's report "does not indicate harm to the child. There is nothing to indicate that the child is being physically harmed... . No indication the ... yelling at the child is impairing or endangering the child socially or intellectually, to the point that it is causing the child to deteriorate and not be able to function on a daily basis."
It concludes that "no further ... action is needed."
So there was no further investigation by SRS, Walton said.
He said the local SRS office told him Tuesday that it did not know of the report.
It appears that the SRS finding came within about a day of SRS receiving the initial report of possible abuse, Walton said.
He said he didn't know the extent to which SRS looked into the matter before making its finding.
SRS spokeswoman Michelle Ponce confirmed that the hotline number that the neighbor called months before the baby's death is an SRS number that starts the child abuse and neglect investigation process. But Ponce said she could not comment on the North Newton case.
In an interview with The Eagle on Tuesday, Jessica Link, the woman who lives in the duplex next to the toddler's home, said she could easily hear the man next door yelling and cursing at the boy while his mother was gone, beginning late last year after the family moved in.
"I would just hear him say, 'Shut up!' "
At first the boy would cry, "like a kid does," she said, and then the man would yell at the toddler for crying. What unsettled her was that the boy would begin to scream "like there was something wrong," said Link, 21.
Link noticed that the yelling and screaming occurred when the mother's car wasn't in the driveway. She said she never heard the woman yell at the child.
The mother was at a baby shower in Wichita on Saturday when authorities say Carr made the 911 call to report that the boy was not breathing.
Months ago, Link thought about knocking on her neighbor's door but didn't want to have a confrontation, she said. And at the time, she didn't think it was necessary to call police, she said.
Link had a refrigerator magnet with a toll-free SRS number to call to report child abuse. She called the number a couple of times in January and left messages saying that she could hear possible abuse and wanted to report it, she said.
A couple of days later, someone from the hotline called back, and Link gave her name and address and her neighbors' address and told about the yelling and screaming next door, she said. She didn't know her neighbors' names.
She said she thought she gave enough information for SRS to follow up.
"I felt the claim was strong enough, and I gave their address," she said.
Link said she wished she had been home Saturday afternoon before emergency dispatchers received the 911 call about the toddler.
"Maybe I would have heard something going on," she said.
When she learned from investigators that the boy had died, she said, "My first thought was it could have been prevented."
If she had it to do over, she said, she would have called police instead of the SRS number.
Link wasn't the only person who brought forward concerns about the toddler's welfare.
After Link told her landlord, Ruth Megli, about the yelling and screaming, Megli said she agonized about what to do.
"I kept thinking of the baby and I thought ... somebody has to speak for that kid," Megli said. So months ago, Megli went to the boy's maternal grandmother's workplace and told her about the concerns, Megli said in an interview Tuesday.
Megli said she remembers telling the grandmother what Link had told her and something like: "We don't need any of these abuse cases in (North) Newton like they have in Wichita."
Since the boy and his mother moved into the duplex in early December, Megli saw the boy several times.
"He was just as sweet as he could be," she said. "I can't believe anybody would do that."
Only a couple of days before the boy died, Megli saw him at the front door of his duplex, in his mother's arms.
"He looked fine," she said. She saw him only from the neck up and didn't see any injuries. "He wasn't crying. He didn't seem to be in any discomfort."
"If I would have known then what I know now," she said, she would have reported her concerns directly to authorities.
The death of a child is everyone's loss, Megli said.
"We're all grieving this," she said. "You think what he could have been, what he could have become."
By Tuesday, next to the curb outside the duplex, someone had propped a small cross with the boy's name and a teddy bear.
The cross had a message imprinted in the wood.
"We love you," it said.