Crime & Courts

Grandmother: How did SRS lose child?

Long before someone beat 2-year-old Damion Thomas to death in Wichita in 2008, the state saw signs he was at risk.

When he and his twin brother were born, they tested positive for marijuana, says their paternal grandmother, Jackie Thomas. The twins also failed to gain weight.

So the state's child-welfare agency — the Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services — began monitoring the boys and trying to help their young mother, Shaneekwa Saunders, Thomas said.

But when Damion most needed a safety net, it wasn't there, Thomas said.

Saunders and her small children moved from Kansas City, Kan., to Wichita in late 2007, Thomas said. SRS closed its cases involving the family because it couldn't locate them, a court document says.

Although SRS said it couldn't find Damion and the other children, it was paying for their day care in Wichita in the weeks leading up to his death, according to state records.

If anyone had been checking on Damion in the months before he died — if anyone saw any part of his body — they would have seen injuries, Thomas said.

An autopsy found that Damion suffered abuse for months leading up to a fatal beating.

Thomas said she didn't see her grandson for about a year before he died because after the move to Wichita, she couldn't find her grandchildren and their mother. Thomas learned of his injuries after he died.

She said she can't understand why SRS appears to have stopped checking on Damion and why it said it couldn't find him if it was paying for his day care.

"How can you have a child on your radar ... and just lose him?" she asked.

"From day one" after she got word that Damion was on life support in a Wichita hospital, Thomas said, she faulted SRS.

"They need to be held accountable," she said.

SRS spokeswoman Michelle Ponce said she can't comment on Damion because of privacy issues and because of pending charges in his death. The mother's boyfriend has been charged with first-degree murder.

In general, Ponce said, if SRS is involved with a child at birth, the agency would rarely investigate the case two years later unless it received additional reports of child-welfare concerns.

Anytime a child becomes a homicide victim, it is standard practice for SRS to review any of its involvement with the child's family, she said.

"I think the most important thing that needs to come out of a story like this is that people need to not be afraid to become involved" in reporting signs of possible abuse, Ponce said.

According to an autopsy report, Damion had new and old injuries, including a possible bite mark and bruises and scars, from head to toe. He also had extensive internal injuries.

Police said his twin had been beaten as well, but not as severely.

The autopsy concluded that Damion died "as a result of multiple blunt force injuries. The manner of death is homicide."

Damion died on Sept. 20, 2008.

Searching for the kids

Thomas, 42, who lives in the Kansas City area, said she came to Wichita in July or August of 2008 and spent two fruitless days looking for her grandchildren.

She knew only that Saunders and her children were living with Saunders' boyfriend — DeWhite Cameron.

Cameron had a long criminal record before he was charged with first-degree murder in Damion's death and aggravated battery over injuries to Damion's twin. Pending is a determination of whether Cameron is mentally competent to stand trial.

Thomas said that around the spring of 2008, months before Damion died, she called SRS offices in Kansas City, Kan., and Wichita in an effort to see her grandchildren. She said she told the offices that Saunders and her children were in Wichita, though she didn't know their address.

At the time Damion died, the family was living in a small corner house on Erie, near 13th and Hillside.

The Kansas City office didn't know Saunders and her children had left the Kansas City area, and the Wichita office wouldn't tell her anything, Thomas said.

To Thomas, it doesn't make sense that SRS lost the children because by the summer of 2008 the agency was paying a Wichita woman to provide day care for the Thomas children through an assistance program. If SRS knew where to find the children's day care provider, then it could locate the children and resume its monitoring of them, she said.

Thomas knows that SRS was paying for day care because the SRS Wichita office mailed a document dated Aug. 6, 2008 — about a month and a half before Damion died — to Saunders at a Kansas City, Kan., address.

The document gave the name of the Wichita day care provider and said the provider was being paid $794.20 for August to care for four small Thomas children, including Damion and his twin.

Twins monitored early

Because of SRS concerns about the twins after they were born, the children and their mother were supposed to stay with Thomas or with their maternal grandmother, who lived in Wichita, Thomas said. For much of the first half of the twins' lives, they lived with Thomas, she said.

Earlier in the twins' lives, "SRS was checking on the kids," Thomas said. "They were in her (Saunders') life."

SRS made home visits, and scales were used to weigh the twins when they lived in Kansas City, Kan., Thomas said.

Saunders had to take parenting classes, and she received assistance including clothing and diapers, Thomas said.

After moving to Wichita, Saunders ended up living with the boyfriend, Thomas said.

When she reached Saunders by phone, Saunders said she was staying in Wichita because she was receiving SRS assistance, Thomas said.

Thomas said that when she tried to contact Saunders again, closer to the time Damion died, the boyfriend said Saunders didn't want to talk to her.

Court documents show that for at least the last 5 1/2 months of his life, Damion was living with Cameron, the boyfriend. He is not the father of any of Saunders' children.

According to a transcript of Saunders' guilty plea to aggravated child endangerment, she admitted leaving her children with Cameron while she worked, from April 1 to Sept. 18, 2008.

She said Cameron was abusing her and her children, and that she knew they were in danger.

After the boy's death, SRS investigated the day care provider to determine whether she "was actually providing care and if so, was she aware of the past alleged abuse or was she only providing the child care in name only and we may have possible fraud," according to an internal SRS e-mail received by The Eagle.

Fraud can occur when parents conspire with providers to split day care assistance money without sending the children to day care.

The Eagle reported in November that the day care provider said she didn't see Damion and the other Thomas children for about three weeks before he died.

It's unclear whether SRS or authorities have determined whether fraud occurred in Damion's case. The issue remains under review, Ponce said.

Memories, aftermath

Early one morning in September 2008, Thomas got a call saying her grandchildren had been critically injured.

She came to Wichita and learned that Damion had been unresponsive since he arrived at the hospital and that he was probably going to be taken off life support.

Now, Thomas clings to a few tangible reminders: Damion's crayon-and-pen scribbling; a slip of paper with his hospital room number; and framed prints of his foot and hand made shortly before he died.

Thomas said she doesn't know the status of her surviving grandchildren. SRS said it can't comment.

At Saunders' sentencing on June 2, 2009, she received probation.

According to a transcript of the sentencing, her attorney, Chrystal Krier, said it was possible that Saunders, now 25, would regain custody of her surviving children.

"I would also just like the court to know she is working with SRS and she's been attending parenting classes, and she's now able to see her kids on Thursdays, and hopefully within a couple of months she'll be able to get her kids back," Krier said.