Twice before 10-month-old Karsyn Young died from blunt-force injuries, the state investigated suspicions that he had been neglected or abused, Lela Warner says. The child protection system had clear warnings about Karsyn but failed to act at critical times — including investigations of a broken leg Karsyn suffered almost three months before he died, said Warner, his great-grandmother.
"When his leg was broke, something should have been done right then, and he'd still be alive," Warner said.
Karsyn's mother, Stormie Young, said an SRS social worker who helped to investigate the leg injury told her, "I'm sorry, we do not have the time or the resources" to get to the bottom of how the injury occurred.
One of the people questioned about the leg injury was Shawn Blackburn, Young's unemployed boyfriend. Blackburn, who frequently cared for Karsyn even after a breakup with Young, was recently sentenced to 10 years in prison after pleading guilty to reckless second-degree murder in Karsyn's death.
Karsyn should have been put in state custody or placed with relatives other than his mother while her life was in turmoil, Warner said. Young — Karsyn's mother — is Warner's granddaughter.
The state maintains it investigated all the warning signs.
A third state investigation, into concerns about the care of Karsyn's older brother, occurred before Karsyn's birth, Warner said. Details of that investigation weren't available.
Throughout, Karsyn remained in his mother's custody. At age 20, Young was a single mother with three children; Karsyn was the youngest.
The two investigations involving Karsyn stemmed from a leg fracture he suffered when he was 7 months old in December 2009, Warner said.
Two months later, in February 2010, the Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services investigated whether Karsyn was neglected because his leg cast remained on too long, Warner said.
The same social worker who investigated the broken leg also looked into the situation involving the cast. During a visit to Karsyn's home, the social worker saw signs of drug use at the home, Warner said.
The next month, in March 2010, Karsyn stopped breathing while in Blackburn's care at a duplex on West Nantucket, near 13th and Ridge Road. At the time, Blackburn was Young's ex-boyfriend, and they were living apart.
A joint police-SRS investigation of Karsyn's broken leg ended because of a medical opinion that the injury might have been an accident, say Warner, Young and police.
Blackburn, now 23, told The Eagle from the Sedgwick County Jail that he didn't break Karsyn's leg and doesn't know how it occurred.
SRS spokeswoman Angela de Rocha said of the agency's handling of the case: "All the warning signs were investigated, and those investigations were extensively documented."
SRS did a thorough review of the case but can't comment on any findings, de Rocha said.
'Possibility of neglect'
A report from Karsyn's autopsy found signs of possible neglect preceding his fatal injuries.
The report, based on an autopsy conducted March 23, 2010, said his "unexplained" leg fracture was possibly caused by a twisting force.
The report noted that his weight had begun a "sudden downward trend" when he was 7 months old — his age at the time of the leg injury.
His medical history also included a tear in his mouth when he was 6 months old and "a pattern" of missed medical appointments and delays in immunizations. It "may suggest the possibility of child neglect," the report concluded.
The autopsy revealed that Karsyn had marijuana in his system, apparently from someone smoking around him. Blackburn said he smoked marijuana all the time.
The autopsy found that Karsyn died from blunt-force injuries to the trunk of his body and that he also had significant head injuries. The most serious injuries included a tear in his small intestine, and the injuries likely were not accidental, the autopsy report says. A deputy coroner ruled it was a homicide.
Blackburn's defense attorney, Charlie O'Hara, told the judge at the sentencing that Karsyn's death was a "classic case" of reckless second-degree murder, defined as an unintentional killing.
Blackburn told The Eagle that he accidentally dropped Karsyn onto a hard surface at the top of some stairs and that the child tumbled about 13 steps to the basement. He said Karsyn seemed OK until he began to gasp and vomit hours later.
It was the second time Karsyn suffered an injury after Blackburn reportedly dropped him, Warner said. The first time involved a tear in Karsyn's mouth. The mouth injury occurred four months before Karsyn died, Warner said.
Warner said she understood that before Karsyn died, Blackburn was not supposed to be around him after the leg injury. Still, the family had trusted Blackburn, Warner and Young say. Young said Blackburn had acted like a father to her children.
Warner learned that Young had left her son with Blackburn for most of the last months of his life.
It's difficult to talk about the case, Warner said, without criticizing Young for leaving her 10-month-old in the care of her ex-boyfriend.
Warner said she has forgiven her granddaughter and doesn't want to cause Young more pain at a time when she has "changed her life around" and continues to suffer over her son's death.
At Blackburn's sentencing, Young said she feels guilt every day, knowing "I wasn't there to protect my baby."
Warner said it doesn't make sense that when her granddaughter was having trouble caring for her children, the state let her keep the children. Now that Young has improved herself, she said, the state is keeping her children from her.
The SRS spokeswoman, de Rocha, said SRS is "acting in the best interests of the children."
Warner said she is talking about the case partly to vent her feelings about Blackburn.
"Karsyn had a bloody lip when he fell in the bathtub when Shawn was watching him. Karsyn came up with bruises when Shawn was baby-sitting him. Karsyn came up with a broken leg when Shawn was baby-sitting.
"And Karsyn came up dead when Shawn was baby-sitting."
Warner said she also wants to shed light on what happened to Karsyn in the hope that "it might spare another life."
Anger over outcome
Warner, 63, is a preacher in St. Joseph, Mo.
She had been in the ministry about 12 years before Karsyn died. After his death, she stopped preaching.
Now, almost a year and a half later, she still feels too much anger to preach.
"I can't get back up in the pulpit because of the hate I have in my heart ... for Shawn Blackburn and the DA (district attorney)... . There's no reason to plea-bargain with him."
When Karsyn's family voiced outrage over a plea agreement, the District Attorney's Office said that prosecutors met with the family and that the office considers the input and feelings of victims' families.
Blackburn, who had been facing trial on charges of first-degree murder and child abuse, pleaded guilty this summer to the lesser charge in an agreement with prosecutors.
Blackburn said he figures he could leave prison in about 7 1/2 years if he earns credit for good behavior.
A broken leg
In late December 2009, Young said she received a call at work — she doesn't remember from whom — that Karsyn's leg was swollen and that he wouldn't stop crying.
She drove him to a hospital, where X-rays showed his lower leg was broken and looked as if it had been twisted.
Blackburn said he brought up to Young that something was wrong with Karsyn's leg.
Young said she immediately suspected Blackburn because he usually watched her children while she was at work.
Young said investigators with the Wichita-Sedgwick County Exploited and Missing Child Unit interviewed her and Blackburn separately and together. At one point, Blackburn called her crying, saying he didn't hurt Karsyn, she said.
The SRS worker involved in the investigation "basically implied it was probably an accident ... (and) led me to believe I really didn't have anything to worry about," Young said.
Karsyn was released to her after two days in the hospital, she said.
The broken leg was the beginning of the end of her relationship with Blackburn, she said.
Although she had been suspicious of him after the broken leg, even after their breakup she still left her children with him.
"I still wanted my kids to have a father figure," she said.
She said she was at the home of a friend the night Karsyn died.
At a preliminary hearing, the prosecution contended that Blackburn was the one with the child during the 36 hours or so before he died.
Blackburn said he loved Karsyn and his siblings.
He said he told Young after they became involved that he would be a presence in her children's lives.
"I enjoyed having them," he said.
He said he was paying her cellphone bill and rent on her apartment so the children would have a place to live.
"I was doing it for them, not for her."
Blackburn's mother, Kelly Blackburn, said her son would call her asking for help to get food, medicine and diapers for Karsyn and his brother.
"He would always make sure those boys had something to eat before he did," Kelly Blackburn said. "Shawn's a very unselfish person."
This is an account that Shawn Blackburn gave of the hours leading up to Karsyn's death:
Early in the morning, he was holding Karsyn at the top of the stairs to the basement while picking up a pit bull puppy. Karsyn was pulling at Blackburn's collar when Blackburn drew back, and Karsyn fell and tumbled down the stairs. When he picked Karsyn up, he had a cut at the top of his gums, which Blackburn dabbed with a towel.
"I genuinely thought he was fine," Blackburn said.
He said he didn't call Young about her son at that point because "I didn't want her to be upset with me."
Late that night, when he put his video game on pause, he said he could hear Karsyn moaning or grunting from the basement, where they all slept. He brought Karsyn upstairs to a rocking chair and held him. Karsyn took two short breaths, his eyes rolled back and he vomited over and over, a greenish material.
Blackburn said he became frantic. Within seconds, he called his roommate, who told him to call 911. He did CPR on Karsyn under direction from a 911 operator.
At a June 2010 hearing, fire Capt. Larry Matthews testified that after he rushed to the duplex, something didn't add up. He was responding to a 911 dispatch of an infant having difficulty breathing.
But Matthews saw Karsyn lying with his mouth and eyes open, with no pulse and with skin that had taken on a deathly color. Karsyn's body felt cold.
It didn't seem to Matthews that Karsyn could have been alive when the difficulty-breathing call came.
Blackburn said Karsyn could have felt cold after emergency crews arrived because Karsyn had been sleeping in the basement with little on and because the front door had been left open and it was March.
According to the autopsy report, Wichita police and EMS responded to a 911 call from Karsyn's caregiver at 11:29 p.m. March 22, 2010. The EMS crew began resuscitation at the scene.
Karsyn arrived at the Via Christi on St. Francis emergency room at 12:04 a.m. The initial ER examination noted he had rigor mortis in his jaw and neck. Karsyn was pronounced dead at 12:10 a.m.
Blackburn said: "This was an accident. I mean, I'm not a killer. I'm not a monster. I made a mistake, and I'm accepting my responsibility for what had happened."
He said he realizes that if he had sought help when Karsyn fell, "he might be alive today. If there was something really wrong with him, I would have taken him to the emergency room right away. I wouldn't have let him suffer."
If he could, Blackburn said, he would trade his life for Karsyn's.
He said he pleaded guilty to reckless second-degree murder because it matches what happened and because he owes part of his life to Karsyn.
Asked whether he had lost his temper with Karsyn, he said, "I never got mad at him. They (the children) never did anything wrong."
But Warner, the great-grandmother, said she heard of incidents where people saw Blackburn get angry with the children.
Warner said she is convinced that Blackburn cared for the children for a selfish reason: "It was his way of staying close to Stormie (Young). The DA told me he was infatuated with her."
Blackburn said: "I was never obsessed with her."
Warner remembers the initial shock and pain.
She got a call from a relative, screaming that Karsyn had been murdered. Warner's voice shakes as she recalls it.
Warner's son — Karsyn's grandfather, Mike Young —"went crazy" when he heard, she said.
"I guess we all wanted to believe it was a lie."
Warner wants to remember Karsyn as "a beautiful baby" who "loved to be loved, loved food."
She holds onto memories of him pulling up to her coffee table or sitting on his grandfather's lap.
"Even with the cast on his leg, he pulled up, and he always had a smile on his face," Warner said.
"How anybody could ever hurt him, I don't know."
She didn't go to his funeral.
"I didn't want to see Karsyn in a coffin," she said.
Although she can't preach because of the hate she feels, she said it hasn't stopped her from asking God for one thing:
"Just love him and take care of him."