Mother says her toddler’s death in foster care was neglect. The state disagrees.

Recognizing signs of physical child abuse

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) statistics show that more than 700,000 children are referred to child protective agencies as a result of abuse or neglect in the U.S. each year. According to Purva Grover, M.D., a pediatric eme
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U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) statistics show that more than 700,000 children are referred to child protective agencies as a result of abuse or neglect in the U.S. each year. According to Purva Grover, M.D., a pediatric eme

Conner Hawes drowned in a moss-covered decorative fish pond at his foster parents’ home near Fort Scott on Aug. 18, two months shy of his second birthday.

His foster father was inside watching television while Conner and three other foster children played outside, a sheriff’s report says. Under state foster care regulations, such ponds are hazards, and young children aren’t supposed to have unsupervised access.

Conner’s mother, as well as a veteran lawyer and an experienced foster parent say they believe the 22-month-old boy died as a result of neglect.

The Kansas Department for Children and Families told The Eagle recently that Conner’s death was an accident – not neglect.

Based on that finding, the agency said it won’t disclose records about the system’s handling of Conner’s case. Kansas law says records should be released “in the event that child abuse or neglect results in a child fatality or near fatality.”

Without the release of records in Conner’s case, there is limited chance for outside accountability of the agency charged with ensuring his well being. The public may not learn if inspectors ever looked at the backyard – as required – and noticed the pond. The public may not know if the foster parents disclosed the pond’s existence or had a plan for making it inaccessible.

The experienced foster parent told The Eagle that inspectors have never inspected her yard.

The Bourbon County Sheriff’s Office also concluded that Conner’s death was an accidental drowning, based in part on autopsy findings.

“At this point in time, I don’t think there was any neglect,” based on the “totality of the circumstances,” Bourbon County Sheriff Bill Martin said Thursday.

“We can’t be with them (children) all the time. That’s just part of parenting and growing up,” Martin said. “It just takes a split second for something to happen.”

Conner’s mother, Beth Hawes, cites findings of the sheriff’s investigative report in saying there was neglect. The report said foster father Peter Brackett was inside watching television as Conner played outside with the other children. Hawes also notes that according to the sheriff’s report, Brackett waited an hour to call 911 after he found out her son was missing.

Conner’s foster parents are nice people, are educated and have a comfortable home, Hawes said.

Still, she said, “They failed to do the No. 1 instinct of a parent, which is to know where your child is, especially that young.”

Brackett didn’t respond to phone messages this week.

Some of the background that Hawes and others rely upon when they say neglect was involved in Conner’s death:

According to the sheriff’s report, Peter Brackett told a deputy that “Conner was outside playing when the kids told him they couldn’t find Conner. Peter said they looked for Conner for an hour and then decided to call law enforcement.”

The Department for Children and Families has told The Eagle in an email that it has “very specific regulatory requirements” for fish ponds and other water hazards at foster homes: No child under 6 can have unsupervised access to a fish pond 2 feet or less deep. Every foster child should be protected from bodies of water more than 2 feet deep within 50 yards of the house.

Hawes said that after her son died, she visited the backyard pond. She estimated it was 15 to 20 feet behind the house, at the edge of a patio. The pond was 8 to 10 feet wide, 15 feet long. It was unfenced. It appeared to be 2 to 2-and-a-half feet deep and partly drained.

Because it was covered in moss, leaves and other debris, she wondered whether her son fell into it without realizing that water lay beneath.

Transparency issue

The Department for Children and Families recently told The Eagle in an email that because there was no finding of abuse or neglect, it is denying The Eagle’s request for records on Conner.

“It’s wrong that you can’t get the records,” state Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, said Thursday. Ward, the House minority leader and a candidate for governor, said the Department for Children and Families has a “vested interest in the outcome” of its investigations. “And they won’t let anyone look over their shoulder.”

Although he won’t give his opinion on whether there was neglect in Conner’s death, the boy’s family and taxpayers deserve to know more, Ward said.

“It is just another example of DCF (Department for Children and Families) not being transparent with taxpayers” and families, he said.

“And this is not the first time it has come up,” Ward said. “It has come up over and over again” – records not being released.

“They’ve had too many of these deaths where … the child has been in custody. I don’t trust them anymore.”

In an email statement Friday responding in part to Ward’s comments, the department said: “While Secretary Meier-Hummel cannot account for decisions that were made prior to her arrival, she has made it very clear she is committed [to] being transparent, and doing the right thing for children and families. Secretary Meier-Hummel looks forward to working with Rep. Ward and the entire Kansas legislature on these very important issues in the upcoming legislative session.”

Meier-Hummel has been the department director for less than a month.

In its “overall statement” the agency said it is “devastated at the death of Connor (sic)” and that, “After reviewing the tragic circumstances surrounding Connor (sic) Hawes’ death, the Secretary has referred the matter to legal for action.” Department for Children and Families spokeswoman Taylor Forrest said she couldn’t elaborate on what “referred the matter to legal for action” means.

The statement also said that “foster parents must follow the high standards of the regulations which are necessary and proper to maintain their license, and are put in place to provide safety for foster children in the home.”

Experts say that information in child deaths can reveal gaps in the safety net and help child-protection workers and care-givers learn from tragedies so that other deaths can be prevented.

The San Diego-based Children’s Advocacy Institute has said in a report, “The federal government has determined that the good that can be gained from disclosing information about child abuse or neglect deaths or near deaths will exceed any potential harm or embarrassment that some individuals might experience as a result.”

A 2016 state audit said the Department for Children and Families failed to safeguard children in 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 addressed issues brought up in the audit.

‘Neglect’ definition

The Eagle requested records regarding Conner Hawes under a provision of Kansas law which directs records to be released “in the event that child abuse or neglect results in a child fatality or near fatality ...” In response, DCF said, “Unfortunately, we are not permitted by law to provide you with the requested records as there has been no determination that Conner Hawes died as the result of child abuse and/or neglect. He died of an accidental drowning.”

Asked for its definition of neglect, the state agency said Kansas law defines “neglect” as “acts or omissions” by a caregiver “resulting in harm to a child, or presenting the likelihood of harm.”

The law also defines neglect as “failure to provide adequate supervision of a child or to remove a child from a situation which requires judgment or actions beyond the child’s level of maturity … and that results in a bodily injury or a likelihood of harm to the child ...”

Mother’s viewpoint

Hawes says her two other children, a 3-year-old and a 9-year-old, remain in the same foster home where their little brother died. “I call them once a week there,” Hawes said. The foster parents bring her children to her for visits.

Hawes said she lost her children because of substance abuse and is fighting a losing battle with the state to get them back or into the care of a relative.

It’s clear to her that her son died as a result of neglect, Hawes said. She believes the state is rejecting any finding of neglect “to help cover up for themselves.”

“He (Brackett) wasn’t watching my child. He failed to contact anybody to help find him” until it was too late, Hawes said. It doesn’t make sense that the foster father waited an hour before calling 911, she said.

A little over a month ago, the state sent her paperwork saying it concluded that there was no substantiated finding of neglect or lack of supervision.

“I definitely felt like it should have been [ruled] a lack of supervision,” Hawes said. “If that would have been me, I honestly feel like I would have been in jail.”

‘Only a bureaucrat’

Randy Rathbun, a Wichita lawyer and former U.S. attorney, agrees with the mother that the circumstances show neglect.

A 2-foot-deep fish pond is just as dangerous as a swimming pool, Rathbun said.

“Only a bureaucrat could say that a 2-foot-deep unguarded pool wasn’t a danger to a 2-year-old child,” he said.

“I’ve had horrendous abuse cases where they’ve said it’s not substantiated and the abuser admits to abuse.” Rathbun said.

‘Could have lied’

An experienced foster parent familiar with Conner’s drowning was at a training for foster parents within the past two months when a trainer for TFI – which has been identified as the foster care subcontractor for Conner – was reviewing rules on hazards. The foster parent recalled the trainer reminding them that bodies of water within a certain distance of the home must be inaccessible.

The trainer said something like: “You guys don’t have a fish pond that we don’t know about?” The trainer then briefly laughed, and added that if foster parents don’t disclose it, “we don’t know.” The trainer then laughed again, the foster parent recalled.

It could have been nervous laughter, but coming after Conner’s death, it came across as flippant and insensitive, the foster parent said.

Told of the foster parent’s account of the TFI training, the Department for Children and Families said in its email Friday: “We expect all child placing agencies to act in a professional manner, and we will be looking into the matter.”

A spokesman for TFI couldn’t be reached.

The foster parent assumed that the trainer brought up fish ponds because of Conner’s death. The foster parent had never heard a trainer focus on fish ponds at previous sessions.

The foster parent asked not to be identified because of fear of retaliation by the state agency or foster care contractors.

Recently, a TFI worker inspected the foster parent’s home, and while going through a questionnaire on hazards, asked if there was a fish pond. “I mean I could have lied,” the foster parent said.

After that, a Department for Children and Families staffer came for another inspection.

In both inspections, neither inspector stepped into the backyard, the foster parent said.

“I’ve never had one of them in my backyard – ever.”

Ward, the House minority leader, said inspectors are required to go into yards, and the Department of Children and Families confirmed Friday that yards should be part of the inspection.

In Conner’s death, the foster parent said, she was puzzled by the sheriff’s report saying that the foster father didn’t call 911 until an hour after realizing Conner was missing. “What would you do for an hour? That doesn’t make sense.”

For the state to find there was not neglect, “to me, that is covering butt,” the foster parent said.

“It’s not for the foster parent’s benefit. It’s for the state’s benefit that they don’t have a foster home declared neglectful under their watch, because they were partially responsible,” the foster parent said.

“To me, TFI and DCF were both responsible for walk-throughs of that home. So to me that’s why they also are responsible.”

It amounts to the state going through the motions while “not actually preventing anything,” the foster parent said.

The mother of 3-year-old Evan Brewer, Miranda R. Miller, 36 and her boyfriend, Stephen M. Bodine, 40, were charged with first-degree murder in the boy's death Tuesday afternoon. Bond for both Miller and Bodine was set at $500,000. (Video by Bo Rader / Wichita Eagle / Dec. 5, 2017)