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Missouri falls silent in children’s deaths, declining to release records

Thirteen years ago, the state of Missouri failed to save the lives of two Kansas City boys whose mother was torturing and slowly starving them.

Within days, lawmakers demanded change. They wanted accountability and openness in a system cloaked in secrecy.

They pushed through a law to shine light during the state’s darkest moments so lessons could be learned, another tragedy prevented.

But since a little girl known as LP was rescued from a locked closet in June, that light has gone out.

In a series of recent cases, the Missouri Department of Social Services — which had routinely released records after child tragedies — has refused to say anything.

No details on caseworkers’ efforts to protect children. No word on any missteps. No comments.

Just silence.

Family advocates, as well as former and current child welfare workers, fear that such a closed culture puts more children at risk. Refusing to look at the department with a critical and objective eye and keeping records from the public, advocates and some lawmakers say, will only conceal flaws.

“I’m not trying to take away anyone’s constitutional right of privacy,” said Rep. Bill Lant, a Republican from Joplin who co-chairs the new Joint Committee on Child Abuse and Neglect, which was created to bring improvements to the state child welfare system.

“But when something is so wrong (that) our babies are being abused and killed,” Lant said, “and we can’t do anything to stop it or thoroughly investigate it to make sure it doesn’t happen again, we have to do something to change our laws.”

The disclosure law on the books, passed in 2000 after the torture and starvation deaths of Gary and Larry Bass, allows DSS to release records following a child fatality or near fatality. But that disclosure comes at the sole discretion of the agency’s director after reviewing whether the information could harm siblings.

The current director, Alan Freeman, has held the post only since December, when Gov. Jay Nixon appointed him. Before Freeman, DSS had an interim director for more than a year.

In a joint request, The Kansas City Star and the Springfield News-Leader asked DSS for records showing how the agency responded to media requests after child tragedies.

The agency provided those records March 7. They show a consistent degree of openness in Missouri from 2009 through mid June 2012. (The department said it keeps such media requests on file for up to three years.)

DSS released records:

Not only did the agency release information, but officials even commented on caseworkers’ efforts.

Out of 22 cases, the director or acting director approved releasing information in 16. DSS classified two, from 2010 and 2011, as “under consideration,” meaning it had neither declined nor approved any release of records.

In one of the 16 cases in which records were released, then-director Ronald J. Levy even stressed that the department was committed to transparency.

In some cases, officials turned over records within days. In others, documents from case files were delivered within a few months of a child’s death or serious injury.

And all were released before any suspects went to trial or pleaded guilty.

Now, however, the agency says it can’t release any information until the criminal prosecution is completed. And in two recent cases, DSS officials said they had consulted with prosecutors or police on whether to divulge records.

“It sounds like a shift in policy at the Jeff City level,” said Springfield attorney Bryan Wade, who successfully tested Missouri’s disclosure law after the 2002 death of Dominic James in foster care. “I understand the need for privacy for the children and the families but ultimately there has to be some form of transparency.”

The shift, according to the recently obtained documents, started with the 10-year-old Kansas City girl known as LP, who was malnourished and dehydrated when she was rescued from a locked closet in June.

Releasing information about her, DSS officials said, would jeopardize the ongoing criminal case against her mother, Jacole Prince.

So they haven’t said anything.

Yet the best thing for the department to do in LP’s case would be to explain what happened and why, said David Kierst Jr., a former Jackson County Family Court commissioner.

“The activity of the professionals in the field is not confidential,” Kierst said. “Did they come? Did they go? Did they report? Did they act? Did they not act?

“What is confidential or should remain confidential is the specifics about the individuals, particularly the children.”

The DSS response in LP’s case was the first in a stream of rejection letters. Officials have declined information requests in three other cases, all involving child deaths, since LP was found, according to the records The Star obtained.

The child welfare agency has released records three times since authorities found LP, but two of the cases predated hers and the third was an accidental death in which DSS had no prior involvement.

Gov. Jay Nixon’s office on Friday referred questions to DSS.

The department issued a statement that said DSS “is committed to our mission to protect children, and to transparency and openness” but did not directly respond to questions The Star had raised about its policies.

Missouri’s law can be wielded in a way to protect the agency, not the child, said Charles Davis, a professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and an expert on freedom of information laws.

“If I was the director (of DSS) and I had to make a call that’s going to cause widespread pain and suffering within my agency and all I would have to do is say no, then I’m going to be pretty tempted to say no,” Davis said. “There ought to be somebody whose career isn’t bound up in that decision making that decision.”

Eight-year-old Larry Bass, one of Mary Bass’ triplet boys, lay on the living room floor when Kansas City police arrived on Oct. 20, 1999. His lifeless and emaciated body was naked except for a pair of socks.

Upstairs, on a vomit-stained mattress, was Gary. One detective described the second triplet as “just a skeleton covered with skin.” Gangrene had invaded his rotting toes and his empty stomach.

Both boys died of starvation and infection from burns caused by scalding bathwater. The third triplet, Jerry, survived and with two older siblings was placed in foster care.

The Bass boys’ deaths exposed glaring flaws in the way social workers handled the case. The state had received years of hotline calls about possible abuse by Mary Bass, some alleging she was withholding food from her five children as a form of punishment. But after investigating those claims and neglect reports, workers never deemed the children in danger and kept them in the home.

In August 1999, the agency received another call claiming Mary Bass was not only abusing some of her children but starving them to the point they were scavenging food from trash cans. When a social worker went to the home, Bass’ live-in boyfriend told the worker no one was there.

The next day, she returned to the home and spoke more than an hour with Bass, her boyfriend and three of the five children. But the worker never saw Larry or Gary.

Bass told the worker that the two boys were living with their father because of behavior problems. The day before, the boyfriend had given a different story, saying they were with their grandparents. The worker noted the discrepancy on her assessment form but didn’t attempt to confirm where the boys were.

If she had walked through the house, according to a lawsuit filed in federal court in 2002, she would have found Larry and Gary lying in the basement with rope binding their hands and feet and socks stuffed in their mouths.

Instead, she left, concluding that all the children were safe. She wrote Bass a letter saying the agency was not opening a case “because we agreed during our discussion that your family is not in need of services.”

Two months later, Mary Bass called 911. “I’m a rotten momma,” she said. “I killed my baby.”

Emergency crews found Larry dead. Gary died two days later.

The deaths have haunted agency workers, lawmakers and other children’s advocates. Caseworkers wanted to learn how to keep such a tragedy from happening again. Legislators immediately pledged to make changes to protect other children.

“We wanted to try to figure out what in the system was flawed to keep it from happening again,” said Joe Maxwell, a former state senator and lieutenant governor who co-sponsored the measure with the late Sen. Harry Wiggins, a fellow Democrat. “We thought the public should have the right to have information on what the process was and whether the department had responded appropriately.”

The part of the law that gives the DSS director sole discretion to release information was a compromise, Maxwell said, a way to get the law passed and have some transparency even if it wasn’t as much as some lawmakers initially wanted.

Child welfare systems are meant to be private to protect intimate information about a child and his or her siblings, details like their medical history and the sometimes toxic environments they live in.

But when tragedies occur, reviewing what workers and the child welfare system did is vital to making improvements and creating best practices, said Missouri Sen. Bob Dixon, a Springfield Republican.

“This is something that will invite the scrutiny of the legislature, as it should,” said Dixon, a member of the Joint Committee on Child Abuse and Neglect. “In these cases, the most heinous of abuse cases, we have a duty to hold the department to the highest of standards to make sure they are prevented.”

“This is why they exist.”

Twenty-seven states — including Kansas and Missouri — allow some disclosure of records involving abuse or neglect that results in the death or serious injury of a child, according to the Child Welfare Information Gateway, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Some states, like Nevada and Oklahoma, say information shall be released. Others, including Oregon, say details of the case may be disclosed after a tragedy.

Kansas’ disclosure law, passed in 2004, looks on paper like a national model. It says information shall become public record. Lawmakers pushed the measure after the 2002 death of Brian Edgar, a 9-year-old whose adoptive parents wrapped him in duct tape from his ankles to the top of his head as punishment. He suffocated in their Overland Park home.

The law says “affected parties” should be notified when a request for records is made. Those parties can petition the court to keep the records sealed.

Among the affected parties? Prosecutors, according to the state, if a criminal charge has been filed.

And in recent years, when a prosecutor has requested that records be sealed, judges have complied, said Brian Dempsey, a deputy director for the Kansas Department for Children and Families.

The man who sponsored the Kansas measure said that wasn’t the intent of the law. Making the child welfare system more open after a tragedy was.

“That was a no-brainer,” said former senator David Adkins, now in Kentucky, where he is chief executive officer and executive director of the Council of State Governments. “Clearly, confidentiality around minors is important. But our thought was, when a child in the care of the state is killed or nearly killed, the balance shifts and transparency is essential if you are able to pursue making sure it doesn’t happen again.”

After Dominic James’ 2002 death in southwest Missouri and the subsequent shakeup inside the state agency, then-governor Bob Holden in 2003 appointed Steve Roling of Kansas City to run DSS.

He soon became known for his openness.

But, he said last week, the decision to release information isn’t an easy one for any DSS director to make. He released many records during his tenure, but there were instances, he said, when he withheld information.

“It’s a very difficult case-by-case determination,” said Roling, who left DSS in late 2004 for the Health Care Foundation of Greater Kansas City, where he is president and chief executive officer.

“As director, I wanted to be very open, very transparent. But at the same time I was responsible for protecting siblings and families and adhering to the rulings of the judicial system. You do the best you can, make your best call.

“Then you say a prayer and hope you do the right thing.”

When Levy was director of DSS, he thought the public had a right to know what happened to Donald Rathman, 2 months old, from St. Joseph.

In October 2009, the infant died after his father beat him to get him to stop crying. The baby suffered a fractured skull and brain hemorrhage.

Shortly after his death, media outlets were allowed access to parts of Donald’s file.

Those records showed caseworkers had visited the Rathman household five times in five weeks. (The agency became involved after the baby’s mother abused him when he was 3 weeks old.) A caseworker last visited the home on Oct. 8 of that year. Later that night, Ronny Rathman took his infant son to the emergency room. The child died that night.

In a letter responding to media requests, Levy spelled out his reasons for releasing details, even though baby Donald had two older brothers in the home.

“The Department of Social Services is committed to transparency in government and regard openness as our default position,” wrote Levy, whom Nixon named to the top post shortly after he was elected governor. “I have decided that while certain elements of this record could prove difficult to the siblings, it does not rise to a level that would prohibit their release.”

Levy, who now works at St. Louis University, declined to comment last week and referred questions to DSS.

During his time as director, other agency employees also made public statements. When Donald died, Celesta Hartgraves, a deputy director with the Children’s Division, told a Springfield TV reporter that the father seemed to be doing “pretty well” with the baby.

“This is pretty emotional and devastating for our staff, too,” she said. “It was a terrible, terrible tragedy. Unfortunately, we don’t have a crystal ball. Some of the factors you usually see weren’t there.”

The hotline call gave specifics. A little girl was being locked in a closet where she was forced to stay many hours, sleep and go to the bathroom.

Prosecutors say the police officer and a caseworker with DSS’ Children’s Division saved LP’s life that June day when they went searching for her inside her mother’s apartment. They rescued her from the closet and apartment where she had been confined, not allowed to go to school or play outside with her two younger sisters.

Family court records, which The Star obtained shortly after the girl was found, showed that local child welfare workers had tried to protect her from her mother six years earlier.

In early 2006, according to the records, LP, then 4, was treated at Children’s Mercy Hospital. She weighed only 26 pounds. Jacole Prince admitted that she withheld food from her daughter to keep her from going to the bathroom too often.

LP and her little sister were placed in the care of that sibling’s father and under the supervision of DSS while Prince worked through a checklist of state housing and parenting requirements. In 13 months, the state deemed her a better mother and the family was reunited, no longer under the jurisdiction of family court. That was in March 2007.

Then the girl was all but forgotten. Family court records — which show only what happened in the court and not specifically what DSS did — give no indication that anyone from the state saw her again. Her school doesn’t have any record of her after April of that year.

And neighbors insist they never saw the girl over the next five years.

When she was rescued, the 10-year-old weighed just 32 pounds and wore a size 2T shirt. Bruises and scars covered her body. She told authorities she didn’t want to go home.

An outraged community asked what had gone wrong. How could this happen? What cracks did LP fall through?

The questions were similar to those asked in other recent child welfare tragedies. In cases like baby Donald and Kaiden Light, the Springfield baby who allegedly was suffocated.

Yet this time, DSS didn’t answer. Initially, an agency spokeswoman said state law prohibited her and others from saying anything about LP. Rebecca Woelfel said she couldn’t even confirm that the agency had ever come into contact with the child.

When reminded that Missouri law allows the agency’s director to release information when a child dies or is seriously injured, Woelfel responded: “This matter is now in the hands of the criminal justice system. We will reserve any further comments until the conclusion of that process.”

Yet less than two years earlier, the agency released 335 pages of Kaiden’s file even though his mother hadn’t yet been prosecuted. Her trial is scheduled for next month.

After numerous requests over several months, agency officials said their decision not to release records in LP’s case was “consistent” with the wishes of Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker.

“Our priority is to ensure that we do not hinder the criminal justice process,” Woelfel said in early October.

But Baker never asked the department to seal the information. She told The Star at the time that the governor’s office had just contacted her to ask her opinion on whether the information should be released.

At that point, however, her office hadn’t yet received LP’s records from the Children’s Division, Baker spokesman Mike Mansur said last week. And because she didn’t know what was in them, he said, she did have concerns.

“But it’s not our place to direct them as to what to do,” Mansur said of DSS. “They have the discretion of whether to release the records. We can’t really jump into the middle of that.”

The agency, in fact, did release records in two previous Jackson County cases, and Baker’s office did not recall being consulted.

Did information released in previous cases hinder those other prosecutions?

DSS did not respond to that question. The agency’s emailed response encouraged the public to report abuse.

“We welcome the Star’s interest to raise awareness not just to incidences of abuse, but of the conditions that enable it, and promote community involvement which is essential to protecting our children,” Woelfel wrote for DSS. “Please encourage your readers to call Missouri’s Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline (800-392-3738) if they ever have reason to believe a child may be in danger, and assure them that their confidentiality will be maintained.”

Earlier this month, DSS denied another request for information, again saying it didn’t want to interfere with an ongoing investigation. In that case, a brother and sister, ages 4 and 2, were found dead along with their mother after a Feb. 23 fire in their Springfield home. Investigators think the mother strangled and stabbed the children and killed herself.

When the News-Leader requested information, an attorney with DSS responded that the case was under police investigation. And when the agency told Springfield police about the request, the DSS attorney said, someone with the police department indicated that the investigation was in “its beginning stages” and releasing information would not be helpful.

However, a spokeswoman for the city of Springfield said no officer or supervisor involved in the case had been contacted by anyone from DSS.

“At this point, we think the Children’s Division would need to follow their own procedures on release of information,” spokeswoman Cora Scott told the News-Leader in an email.

Late Friday, a Springfield police lieutenant contacted the News-Leader to say that the department received a clarification earlier in the day from DSS.

“It is their policy not to release records related to an open criminal investigation,” wrote Lt. Tad Peters in an email. “The Children’s Division apparently contacted the Records Division of the Springfield Police Department and confirmed that this investigation is still open, which caused them to deny your request. As the criminal investigation into the death of the two children remains open at this time, I assume they will still not provide any documents related to the death of the children.”

Kierst, the former Jackson County Family Court commissioner, said the child welfare system often operates in secrecy because of the nature of what workers do in helping children. Sometimes that can go too far, which is what he noticed when he first started working in family court in the 1970s.

“Their attitude was like, ‘We’re doing God’s work. Don’t ask us to explain anything. Don’t ask us what we’re doing or why we’re doing it,’ ” said Kierst, who has held family court positions over a three-decade career.

Openness and transparency are key in government, said Sen. Ryan Silvey, a Republican from Kansas City who spent the past eight years in the House.

“It is troubling that they would release records previous to (LP’s case) that got so much attention and have decided after that case that they won’t. If they used to do it and it wasn’t a problem, I don’t see why it’s a problem now.”

One social worker, who works for DSS and spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, said it’s crucial for child welfare system employees to learn from past cases.

“Everything they are doing (with not releasing records) is the opposite of textbook,” the worker said. “I would want to learn from the mistakes. I know what the mistake in the Bass case was.”

What was learned from LP?

“Nothing,” the worker said. “I don’t know what happened.”