One key lesson in the recent death of a 19-month-old North Newton boy — allegedly a victim of severe abuse — is the importance of calling 911, law enforcement officials say.
In January, more than two months before Vincent Hill died after suffering injuries that covered his body, a neighbor reported to a state child abuse call center that she could hear a man yelling and a child screaming at the duplex where Vincent lived.
But within about a day of receiving the report and without anyone from SRS going to the address, its call center found no indication of physical harm and decided no further investigation was needed, Harvey County Sheriff T. Walton said.
If local police had received such a report before Vincent's death, they would have gone to the duplex to check on him, Walton said. And if the local Social and Rehabilitation Services office had received the report, it probably would have notified police, based on the working relationship between the offices, he said.
Walton said he wishes that the SRS call centers would forward to local SRS offices the reports that are not assigned for further investigation. The local offices might recognize something that a call center might miss, he said.
There's no guarantee that if the neighbor had called 911, the toddler's death could have been prevented, Walton said. But it could have put anyone who might have harmed Vincent on notice that police were watching, he said.
Although there's nothing wrong with calling the toll-free SRS number — which is widely publicized and used by tens of thousands of people a year — if there is any suspicion that a child is being harmed, the best course is to call 911 first, Walton said. Calling 911 will get the surest, quickest response. And people reporting suspicions should not worry that police will reveal their identities to the people who are suspected, Walton said.
The desire to remain anonymous sometimes keeps people from calling 911. But police and child welfare experts say that residents can't let anything dissuade them from calling 911 if there is any hint that a child's health or life is at stake.
"I think the lesson learned here, in acute situations... 911 is the number to call," said Wichita police Deputy Chief Tom Stolz.
In Wichita, a report to 911 of a man yelling and a child screaming in a way that unsettles a neighbor definitely will get an officer immediately dispatched to the address, Stolz said.
It would be classified as a "check-the-welfare" or "disturbance" call. Either way, the officer would look over the child to make sure he or she is OK and would talk to anyone in the household, separately, he said. The officer would pay close attention to the scene — looking, for example, for broken glass or any other sign of a disturbance.
Because domestic disturbances can be volatile, normally more than one officer gets dispatched.
People wondering what the threshold is for calling 911 should listen to their gut, Stolz said.
"The threshold is if it is bothering you."
Then, "Give as much information to the dispatcher as possible," Stolz said.
The Kansas Attorney General's Office recommends "that citizens report possible abuse to both SRS and local law enforcement, particularly if the child may be in immediate danger," said spokeswoman Ashley Anstaett.
Earlier this year, a Kansas attorney general's report faulted SRS for sometimes failing to involve law enforcement in abuse investigations even when SRS found strong evidence of abuse.
Official: Be 'relentless'
Outrage over Vincent's death comes as the child-welfare community is publicizing the need to report and prevent child abuse.
April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month.
"I think everybody has to know it's their duty to call, no matter what. If they have a suspicion, call and let the authorities work it out," said Cyndi Chapman, pediatric intensive care manager at Wesley Medical Center.
Abusers often are adept at hiding abuse.
People who suspect abuse have to be "relentless" in reporting it, Chapman said.
If someone suspects that abuse is continuing, she said, "Call again. The fact that you called a third time or fourth time might save that kid's life."
There is no excuse not to call. "We have to take responsibility for the kids who can't talk for themselves," she said.
Harvey County authorities have charged Vincent's 20-year-old mother, Katheryn Nycole Dale, and her 26-year-old boyfriend, Chad D. Carr, with multiple counts of battering, abusing or endangering the toddler.
More charges are possible, depending on final autopsy findings, County Attorney David Yoder said.
Yoder said the injuries that covered Vincent's body when he arrived at a hospital March 27 included broken bones, cuts and extensive bruising.
According to a report by the Kansas Child Death Review Board, several risk factors are associated with child abuse homicide.
Those include "maternal risk factors (young age, less than 12 years of education, and being unmarried) and household risk factors (male not related to the child in home, prior substantiation of child abuse and neglect, substance abuse, and low socio-economic status)."
Vincent's living situation included a number of those factors: His mother is young: 20. He was living with his mother's boyfriend — a man not related to him. Authorities say they found marijuana and drug paraphernalia in the duplex while executing a search warrant. According to a financial affidavit filed in court, almost all of the live-in boyfriend's relatively low income went to expenses. According to a jail document, Vincent's mother was unemployed.
It is not known whether the SRS call center worker asked about any of those risk factors.
SRS spokeswoman Michelle Ponce wouldn't comment on the case, saying abuse reports are confidential under state law. But she explained how the call center process works:
The staffers who take calls reporting suspected abuse receive training to get specific information about the situation, Ponce said in an e-mail.
The information requested includes the circumstances of the situation, the child's age, the person alleged to have caused harm to the child, where the child is located, other individuals or agencies who might have information about the incident and whether an adult is available to protect the child from further harm, Ponce said.
The information goes to a licensed social worker to review and determine whether the report requires more investigation. "This decision is based on specific safety and risk factors, including but not limited to: seriousness of the incident, prior agency involvement with the family, and seriousness of injury to child," Ponce said.
In an interview, Ponce said that much of the call center "assessment is based on information that we can gather from the person making the report. The more information they can provide, the better. Not always do they have all the information."
Following recent child death cases, SRS will be working with national experts to determine if additional risk factors should be considered, Ponce said.
"I don't imagine a whole overhaul of our system. I do believe on the whole it works very well. Still the question is: 'Are there any common factors in these recent cases that our current risk assessment is failing to capture?' "
The deaths are "tragic situations for everyone involved," Ponce said. "We're always looking for ways to improve."
In 2008, eight Wichita children died from abuse or neglect. In the past six months, three more children have died from abuse in Sedgwick County, authorities say.
Calls to SRS
Jessica Link, the neighbor who called the SRS number in January and reported that she could hear a man yelling and a child screaming in an unsettling way next door, said she gave her name and address and the address next door.
Link said she thought she gave enough information for SRS to follow up.
Ponce said that all child abuse reports assigned for further action must be investigated within the same working day or 72 hours, depending on the nature of the allegation.
Situations that require a same-day response include a life-threatening situation, sexual abuse where the alleged perpetrator is in the home, a child in protective custody or a child with current visible injuries, she said.
SRS takes reports of alleged abuse and neglect through its Kansas Protection Report Center, 800-922-5330.
In fiscal year 2009, SRS received 56,207 reports of alleged abuse or neglect, Ponce said. Of those, 49 percent, or 27,340 cases, were assigned for more investigation.
The calls go to two centers, one in Wichita and one in Topeka. The Wichita center receives calls during business hours. The Topeka center takes calls 24 hours a day.