A Sedgwick County judge has sealed the trial portion of a child-in-need-of-care case involving the alleged abuse of a 14-year-old girl who’s been diagnosed as a victim of child torture. The decision means the public will not know the outcome of the case.
The Eagle began following and writing about “The Girl in the Basement” last year as part of its “In Need of Care” series, which examined child abuse and neglect in the Wichita area. Judge Tim Henderson gave The Eagle access to child-in-need-of-care petitions, which are normally closed to the public, to be transparent about how the system works and to show the extent of the problems.
There was no special access granted to the newspaper to attend court hearings, though. All hearings in child-in-need-of-care cases except the disposition are presumed open under state law.
The adjudication portion of the proceedings involving the girl and her three siblings was sealed Tuesday by District Judge James Fleetwood after the children’s guardian ad litem filed a motion asking the case be closed to the media, said attorney Lyndon Vix, who represented The Eagle in the matter.
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The motion was prompted by a letter written by therapists for two of the children who said media coverage of the case was having an adverse effect on them, Vix said. However, Fleetwood did not rely upon the therapists’ letter in making his ruling, because they were not subject to questioning regarding their opinions.
Attorneys for the parents and the Department for Children and Families on Tuesday also were in favor of restricting The Eagle’s access to the hearing, he said.
The adjudication also is known as a child-in-need-of-care trial. In a child-in-need-of-care case, the court decides whether and how the state will become involved to protect a child. The disposition hearing follows.
A guardian ad litem is appointed by the court and represents children’s interests in cases.
Fleetwood ultimately decided to close the adjudication portion of the child-in-need-of-care case because prosecutors plan to hold it and the disposition at the same time, Vix said.
Fleetwood ruled that in cases where the hearings are tied together, the adjudication is presumed closed. Prosecutors may ask that they be held together for several reasons, including when evidence used to prove that a child is in need of care is the same or similar to the evidence used to terminate parental rights.
Because the trial has been sealed, as are court files in the case, “we will not know if this child was determined to be a child in need of care,” Vix said.
“We will not know if the (mother and father’s) parental rights were terminated.”
The girl’s adoptive parents are accused of locking her in a windowless basement room, where she allegedly was forced to use a bucket as a toilet, and of beating her with a foam hard-core bat and a broken curtain rod.
The 14-year-old girl weighed 66 pounds when police removed her and three other children from their home in March 2014. The family fostered the girl after she was neglected by her biological mother and later adopted her.
The girl’s adoptive parents have denied the abuse allegations.
The state has asked the court to terminate their parental rights.
After The Eagle’s first reports about the girl, criminal charges, including felony child abuse, were filed against both the adoptive mother and father in Sedgwick County District Court.
The Eagle plans to continue following that case.
The father faces three counts of child abuse, two counts of aggravated battery, one count of aggravated endangerment of a child, one count of criminal restraint and one count of criminal damage to property.
The mother faces the same except criminal damage to property.
To date, The Eagle has not named the adoptive parents. They are next due in court in the criminal case on April 23.