Could foster child’s death in shallow fish pond have been avoided?

Conner Hawes, a few weeks before he died.
Conner Hawes, a few weeks before he died. Courtesy photo

Beth Hawes last saw her 22-month-old son on the afternoon of Aug. 18, during a visitation at a foster care contractor’s office.

She was working hard, she said, to get her son back.

Within a few hours, though, she lost all chance of being reunited. Conner Hawes drowned in a decorative fish pond in his foster parents’ back yard near Fort Scott.

Conner’s foster father, 37-year-old Peter Brackett, was inside watching TV when he realized Conner was missing, a Bourbon County sheriff’s report said. His 13-year-old son alerted him that Conner was missing.

Conner died in the system that is designed to protect children.

When officials came to Hawes’ door almost four hours after her son died and told her what happened, she recalled, “I proceeded to freak out with them in a way ... and I said, ‘What? You guys are supposed to be protecting my children.’”

The Kansas Department for Children and Families, which oversees the foster care system, refused to release any information about Conner’s death, citing an ongoing investigation.

A woman who answered Brackett’s phone number last week said they couldn’t comment.

Conner’s death has initially been ruled to be an accident, the sheriff’s report said.

Brackett told a deputy that he and his children searched for Conner for an hour before calling law enforcement, the report says.

“That’s a long time for a 22-month-old to be missing before they call law enforcement,” Hawes said last week when a reporter read the sheriff’s report to her by phone.

Two weeks after the death, a Kansas Department for Children and Families worker told her that the foster father was under an investigation by the department, she said. She was told that findings would be sent to her in writing. “And I have yet to hear anything,” Hawes said.

Any time a foster child dies, there is an investigation, department spokeswoman Theresa Freed said.

Under state regulatory requirements for foster parents, no child under 6 can have unsupervised access to a fish pond that is 24 inches or less deep, Freed said in an email.

Foster parents also must ensure that children are protected from any standing water more than 24 inches deep within 50 yards of the house.

When Hawes visited the back yard so she could see where her son died, she noticed that the mossy, debris-filled pond was 15 to 20 feet from a back door. She said the pond looked 2 to 2 1/2 feet deep. The state would not say how deep the pond was. Nor would it release any inspection reports done of the foster home.

Hawes’ two other children, a 3-year-old girl and an 8-year-old boy, remain in the same foster home where their younger brother died, she said.

‘Heart-breaking situation’

Two private companies were involved in Conner’s care.

KVC Kansas was the lead foster-care contractor responsible for Conner, and TFI Family Services was the subcontracting agency, said Jenny Kutz, Olathe-based spokeswoman for KVC Kansas. TFI was required by the state to do a monthly walk-through inspection of the boy’s foster home, and the state has to do an annual inspection, Kutz said.

“The safety of children and families is KVC’s priority, and this is a heart-breaking situation for our team,” Kutz said.

A 2016 state audit criticized the Kansas Department for Children and Families for failing to safeguard foster children. The audit faulted the department in its job of overseeing the privatized foster care system. Among the failings, the audit said, was that monthly visits to foster homes sometimes didn’t occur.

The agency has said it has addressed issues brought up in the audit.

Among the questions the state and KVC would not answer in Conner’s death: Did the state or its foster care contractors know about the fish pond, did the foster parents disclose it, and did they have a plan to keep it from being a hazard?

‘Kind of a Catch 22’

Hawes said her children have been in the foster home for 21 months. Conner suffered a broken arm at the same foster home almost a year before the drowning, Hawes said.

She said that KVC, one of two private contractors who handle foster care for the state, told her that “one of the kids was running … and fell on him.” The state agency sent her paperwork saying it was investigating whether there was neglect but determined that it was not substantiated, she said.

“I just don’t feel like they are watching the kids like they should be,” she said, referring to the injury and the death.

Still, she said, “It’s kind of a Catch 22. This is actually the fourth (foster) home they had been into,” she said. So she doesn’t want her two surviving children to be “bounced around” to more foster homes. She wants them to stay together.

His last day

Hawes last saw Conner at 3:30 p.m. Aug. 18 during her visitation with her children at the KVC office in Pittsburg. The children were taken back to Fort Scott in a state vehicle.

During the visit, Conner wore a blue shirt and blue plaid shorts.

It was the outfit he died in, Hawes learned.

At 5:51 p.m. that day, a Bourbon County dispatcher received a call of a missing child, the sheriff’s report says.

At 6:26, a deputy arrived at Brackett’s home near Fort Scott. The deputy wrote in the report that Brackett told him that his foster child Conner had been missing for more than an hour.

The two men checked in the home. Deputy Leroy Kruger told Brackett to call 911 so law enforcement could go to the biological parents to look for the child, the report says. Kruger also asked 911 to “send me all fire and rescue to do a perimeter search.”

As Kruger went to the back yard, he noticed a “gold fish pond covered in moss and debris.”

Walking toward the pond, Kruger saw Brackett’s 13-year-old son “lunge into the pond.”

The 13-year-old “pulled Conner out of the pond and began to run towards me,” Kruger wrote. The deputy laid Conner down and started chest compressions and CPR. Brackett told the deputy that he was a nurse, and Brackett took over giving compressions “while I gave breaths to Conner,” Kruger wrote.

During the CPR, Brackett “became overcome with grief,” the deputy wrote.

Other emergency responders joined the effort to save the boy, who was taken by ambulance to Mercy Hospital.

The 13-year-old boy gave the deputy this account: The 13-year-old and three other children were playing together outside, and when it started raining, they ran inside.

When the 13-year-old asked Brackett if Conner was inside, Brackett responded, “no I haven’t seen him.”

The 13-year-old said “they looked for Conner for an hour before they called law enforcement,” the report says.

When Deputy Kruger asked the 13-year-old what Brackett was doing while the children were outside playing, “he said Peter (Brackett) was inside watching TV.”

The 13-year-old spotted Conner when he saw the younger boy’s “shorts float up to the top of the water” as he rode his bicycle near the pond, searching for the boy.

Brackett also told the deputy that Conner had been playing outside “when the kids told him they couldn’t find Conner.” Bracket told the deputy “they looked for Conner for an hour and then he decided to call law enforcement.”

At 7:26 that evening, the hospital staff who had tried to save Conner pronounced him dead.

Kruger concluded the report by saying that his opinion was that it was an accidental drowning.

‘And I said, ‘What?’”

Hawes was at home in Pittsburg that night.

It was about 11:30, four hours after her son was pronounced dead. Two Pittsburg police officers and two KVC officials came to her door. She thought it might be a random check on her.

“They come to my door … and I didn’t know why they were there. They come in, and they said there’s been an accident with your kid.

“And they said he died in the koi pond.”

At first, Conner’s death made her mad at God, at everybody, she said. “I was even mad at myself for putting them (her children) there (in foster care).”

Because of her methamphetamine addiction, Hawes said, her children were put in foster care. She has stayed clean for a year now in her effort to be reunited with them, she said.

When her children were placed in foster care, she said, it was the system telling her “that they were in a more safe and secure environment.”

Hawes said she had seen some positives with her son being in the care of Brackett and his wife. “They kind of had a bond with him,” she said. She could tell that Conner looked happy to see his foster mother. Her understanding is that Brackett was a stay-at-home foster dad while his wife worked.

‘They were hurting too’

Conner had blond hair and light brown eyes, “kind of a golden color,” Hawes said.

“He was laid back. He was happy. He was bubbly. He loved his sissy; they were hand in hand wherever they went. He would listen. He wasn’t whiny. He was my perfect little baby. Everything about him was perfect. He would go and he would lay down for you. He would do everything.”

Three days after Conner died, Hawes met a head KVC supervisor at the foster parents’ home.

“So I could have a little bit of closure. And I wanted to see where my son left us.”

She had never seen the back yard before.

At one point, “I was asking what he was playing with, but nobody knew.”

They walked around from the front. What she remembers is a back door leading to a brick patio. The pond starts at the edge of the patio, 15 to 20 feet from the house. She estimated the pond to be 8 to 10 feet wide, 15 feet long. The pond had been constructed with a black liner placed down in the ground. When she saw it, it had been partly drained.

She could tell that it had never had a fence around it.

The water was overgrown with moss and grass, littered with leaves. “It was really slimy looking.” She wonders if Conner lost his footing in it.

“He might not have even realized it was water when he walked off onto it,” she said.

Hawes said Brackett and his wife said Conner had never been back by pond, that he had always played out front, sometimes in the driveway, that he had been playing in the front yard that day and had wandered into the back yard.

One thing that doesn’t make sense to her: “He was scared of water. He didn’t like water.”

The night after Conner died, Hawes talked to the foster parents by phone, and they told her they were sorry, she said. “They were hurting too, and I knew that.”

Days later, at the funeral home, Brackett and his wife hugged Hawes and again said they were sorry.

Hawes said Brackett told her that the pond was going to be filled in so a garden could grow there.