In Need of Care: Helpless in the face of violence

08/02/2014 7:16 AM

08/14/2014 3:35 PM

“Good job, guys. They’re taking you into state custody. I hope you’re happy.”

That’s what a mother of four said to her children just before police took them into protective custody Feb. 7, she acknowledged later in court testimony.

The outburst came after Wichita police responded to a report that the children were being abused by the mother’s boyfriend. A social worker interviewed the children and then the mother.

“My mom’s boyfriend beats mom and us,” the woman’s 10-year-old son told Kansas Department for Children and Families worker Alanea Hanna.

Weeks later, in court, the mother’s lawyer asked her, “Do you regret anything you said?”

“I was crazy mad,” the mother said, crying. “I got p----- off, because those are my kids.”

The boy and his three siblings – ages 11, 7 and 5 – all told a social worker that their mother’s boyfriend hit them, sometimes with a leather belt, sometimes with a ruler, according to court documents.

The 5-year-old boy told the social worker his leg had been bruised for a month from a spanking with a belt.

The 11-year-old boy said he had seen their mother’s boyfriend – a gang member, according to court documents – throw their mother into walls and a door, giving her a bloody lip and a black eye.

On Feb. 11, the state stepped in.

The Sedgwick County District Attorney’s Office filed a petition to declare the children in need of care. They became four of the 1,330 Sedgwick County children served in out-of-home placement by the state in the first 10 months of the fiscal year. The three younger children have been living with a grandparent. The oldest child is in foster care.

The Eagle is following this case and others through the court system to examine how the system works and to show the public the extent of child abuse and neglect in the community. It is not identifying the children or their parents to protect their privacy.

Children tell of violence

Court documents in the case describe a history of domestic violence and drug abuse.

The 7-year-old girl told Hanna that the “family has a hole in the wall” because the boyfriend “picked Mother up and threw her,” court documents say.

The children all reported being spanked by the boyfriend, the petition says. The 10-year-old boy told Hanna their mother knew about the spankings, “but she does not care and does not do anything.”

The oldest child told social worker Angela Leonard that before police arrived after one fight, their mother’s boyfriend had told the children to go to their bedroom before he “busted their heads in.”

“It is important to consider that children obtain their sense of themselves and of the world through their direct relationships with their caregivers as well as witnessing the interactions of adults,” says the petition seeking a protection order. “Children need to feel secure in their environment. Exposure to trauma such as domestic violence threatens a child’s sense of safety.

“Children’s sense of self-esteem is formed by their sense of understanding and master of the environment around them,” the petition says. “When that environment is viewed as unsafe, the child can feel helpless and become unsure of their place in the world.

“Mother has failed to provide a safe and stable living environment for the children. Mother has a history of domestic violence and has failed to protect the children from being exposed to domestic violence situations. Mother has failed to protect the children from her drug use. Mother has failed to protect the children from being abused by her significant other,” the petition says.

The father also has failed to protect his children, the petition says.

“Court intervention is necessary at this time to ensure the children’s safety and well-being.”

‘Should not be scared’

After interviewing the four children in February, Hanna talked to their mother, also at their school.

“Ms. Hanna asked Mother what she would do if she was told that the children are scared at home,” court documents say. “Mother stated that the children have never told her they were scared. Ms. Hanna informed Mother that the children are scared of (her boyfriend), and Ms. Hanna asked Mother what she would be willing to do to protect them. Mother stated that the children should not be scared.”

The social worker then asked the mother whether the children could stay with their father for a while.

“No, the kids need their butts spanked,” the mother said, according to court documents.

Hanna told the mother that if she was not willing to make her boyfriend leave, the children would go into protective custody, the petition says.

The mother said she wouldn’t ask her boyfriend to leave, Hanna testified in court.

In an interview in May, the mother told The Eagle that social workers never suggested she could keep her children if she moved her boyfriend out.

“They never said that, that that was even an option,” she said, adding that the man was no longer living with her.

During cross-examination by the mother’s lawyer at a Feb. 20 hearing, Hanna said she didn’t have it written in her notes that she had asked the mother whether she would be willing to move her boyfriend out but had “independent recollection” that she had asked.

Decade of reports

The Feb. 7 interview at school was not the first time the state had been involved with the mother, her children and her boyfriend. The boyfriend, who moved in with the mother after dating her for six weeks, according to court testimony, has two children of his own. The state terminated his parental rights last year, records show.

Court documents show 13 previous DCF reports involving the family, including an older son not named in this case, and the mother’s boyfriend’s family. The reports date to Oct. 15, 2003.

Among them:

• On May 25, 2007, the state took a report that an older child of the mother and her now ex-husband was without parental control. Someone reported that he “was almost suspended from school due to urinating in trash cans and inappropriately touching female students. The family continued with family preservation services for another year,” court documents say.
• On July 11, 2007, the state took a report that the older child was abusing animals. “It was further reported that Mother gave (him) a kitten, and he threw it against a car window and dangled it by a leash over a fence attempting to let dogs attack it,” court documents say. The family continued working with family preservation and other community services.
• On Dec. 21, 2010, the state took a report alleging sexual abuse by the mother’s boyfriend involving the daughter of a former girlfriend. The DCF closed the case because of insufficient evidence, court documents say.
• On Oct. 28, 2011, the state took a report alleging that the children were without parental control. “It was reported that the (now 10-year-old son) placed his mouth on a doll’s pelvic area. Mother denied knowing (he) was exhibiting this kind of behavior. DCF offered services, but mother declined,” court documents say.
• On Oct. 25, 2013, the state took a report alleging the mother’s boyfriend was physically abusing the children. “It was reported that the children are only fed oatmeal. It was further reported that the children are often seen with bruises, which are believed to be caused by” the boyfriend, the report says. An investigation found not enough evidence to support the allegations. The DCF offered services, which the mother declined. The mother signed a plan saying she understood what to do to keep her children safe, court documents say.

Theresa Freed, a spokeswoman for the DCF, said the agency looks at all reports and assigns them for further assessment based on statutes, regulations and policy.

“Every time someone calls in to report suspected abuse or neglect, a new report is made in the system,” she said.

The DCF acts on all reports, she said, adding that “our trained staff determine what action is appropriate.”

She added that the DCF has a wide range of services to offer families. “We work closely with community organizations and our contracted family preservation providers to walk alongside families so they have the support they need in order for children to safely remain in the home.”

‘They have their mind set’

In court on Feb. 20, the mother testified that she did not like spanking her children.

“I don’t like to hear them cry,” she said.

She also didn’t like to spank them “because then DCF gets involved,” she said.

Spanking the children was necessary sometimes, though, she said.

She denied allegations that she smoked pot in front of the children. She said she had smoked marijuana in her bedroom.

She told her ex-husband’s lawyer that she knew her boyfriend had lost custody of two children and that he had been accused – though the state found no proof – of sexually abusing another girlfriend’s daughter.

“And you had him move into your home?” the lawyer asked her.

“Correct,” she answered.

Sedgwick County District Judge Patrick Walters ruled Feb. 20 that the state had met its burden of proof to place the children in temporary custody. The children’s father, from whom the mother is divorced, had waived his temporary-custody hearing and later did not contest the allegation that his children should be deemed in need of care.

“There is probable cause to believe the health and welfare of the children are in danger,” Walters ruled.

He then turned to the mother.

“I don’t think it’s normal to move a stranger into your home after a few weeks and give them free rein to discipline your children,” he told her. “I don’t think that’s normal. I don’t think that’s good parenting.”

He also told her that he didn’t think she had been “entirely truthful in her testimony.”

The mother, who took notes during the hearing, shook her head as she left the courtroom.

She later told The Eagle she thinks hearings in children-in-need-of-care cases are for show, because “they have their mind set before they are done.”

“Their system is very crooked, very crooked,” she said.

Raging in court

The mother’s anger that her children had been taken away from her was on full display when she appeared in court April 4 to ask for a trial. The trial was set for Monday.

A prosecutor alleged that the mother was seeing her children against court orders – that she had told the state she was moving to the Kansas City area but instead had moved to a town where her children were living with her mother.

About that time, two court security officers interrupted the proceedings to report that the mother and the children’s father had argued in the hallway.

Walters asked the officers whether they wanted to arrest anyone.

“No, because they’re both lying,” one of the officers said.

The mother mouthed “I didn’t do anything” to her lawyer.

She started yelling about the allegations that she was seeing her children without permission.

“Holy s---,” she said. “I f------ work. I don’t have time to go see my kids.”

She said she had not been involved in a disturbance in the hallway and asked Walters whether there were cameras in the hall.

“Check ’em,” she demanded. “Check ’em.

“I didn’t do a d--- thing. I’m losing my kids anyway.”

Walters let her rage and curse. He asked her more than once whether she had anything else to say.

“Let’s get this on the record,” he said.

He ordered the children removed from their grandmother’s home.

Later, after social workers said they were satisfied that the mother wasn’t seeing her children at their grandmother’s house, Walters agreed to keep them there. The mother told The Eagle the oldest of the four children is in foster care because of behavioral problems.

The Eagle will continue to follow this case and plans to update it after the trial Monday in print and at kansas.com/inneedofcare.

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