Crime & Courts

State agency sued over death of 18-month-old El Dorado girl

The state agency that investigates child abuse knew 18-month-old Jayla Haag was living in an El Dorado meth house and was told she was being abused but “did nothing to protect her” before her death, a lawsuit says.

Her injuries included brain swelling, bleeding around her eyes, teeth that had been forcibly removed, damage to her jaw line and various healing injuries. She tested positive – both at birth and as she lay dying – for methamphetamine and amphetamines.

In addition to the lawsuit, Jayla’s paternal grandmother says an El Dorado police detective told her he escorted a social worker to the drug house where Jayla was staying before her death in March 2012. The grandmother, Wendi Vittitow, told The Eagle that she took the escort to mean that the social worker felt unsafe going to the home by herself. And that raises a question, Vittitow said:

“If she (the social worker) didn’t feel it was safe without going with a police escort, then why did she think it was safe for that baby?”

Theresa Freed, spokeswoman for the agency being sued, the Kansas Department for Children and Families, said Thursday that the agency has received a copy of the lawsuit petition and that its legal division is reviewing it. Freed said she can’t comment on the lawsuit because it is pending litigation.

On March 20, Wichita attorney Randy Rathbun, representing Jayla’s father, Steven T. Watters, filed a lawsuit in Sedgwick County District Court against DCF, known as SRS at the time of Jayla’s death two years ago. Rathbun, a former U.S. attorney, has a pending federal lawsuit against an SRS social worker over another child abuse death.

According to the lawsuit over Jayla’s death, “DCF was informed that Jayla was being abused and did nothing to protect her. The only action it took concerning Jayla was to cash the child support payments” from her father. In effect, the state gave financial and medical help to the girl’s mother, Alyssa Haag, allowing her “to continue her meth habit and the abuse of her daughter. The DCF social worker knew that Jayla was living in a meth house,” the petition says.

The lawsuit says that calls about Jayla to the DCF hotline “were ignored.”

“DCF knew that Jayla was in danger and did nothing to protect her.”

The state agency had previous warning signs, the lawsuit says. Before Jayla was born, her mother “already had one child taken from her for abuse and neglect. DCF was involved in investigating that action.”

According to the lawsuit, Alyssa Haag used drugs while pregnant and Jayla tested positive for methamphetamine and amphetamines when she was born on Sept. 19, 2010.

By the time of Jayla’s death, the 18-month-old was living with her mother and her mother’s boyfriend, Justin Edwards, at his duplex in El Dorado. Both adults “were heavy users of meth,” the lawsuit says.

Girl ‘gasping for air’

The lawsuit gives this narrative: On the morning of March 21, 2012, another resident of the duplex heard the girl crying in Edwards’ and Haag’s bedroom. A short time later, the crying ended and the resident heard “what sounded like Jayla being choked and gasping for air. Jayla began to have seizures and convulsions later that day.”

The next day, El Dorado police went to the local hospital to investigate a report of possible child abuse of Jayla. When the girl was brought to the emergency room, she was “so limp she had to be carried.”

Haag, the girl’s mother, “claimed that Jayla’s injuries had occurred the previous day as a result of her falling down stairs,” the lawsuit says.

The same day that El Dorado police went to the hospital to investigate the child abuse report, they searched the duplex where the resident had heard the girl gasping and found drug paraphernalia and bloody baby clothing and adult clothing.

Jayla was transferred to a Wichita hospital and died eight days later.

The lawsuit, by the father, seeks “in excess of $75,000 plus his costs” and any other relief the court might think is just, the lawsuit says.

Haag, the girl’s 24-year-old mother, was sentenced for involuntary manslaughter-reckless. She remains in a Topeka prison, with an earliest possible release in March 2015.

In September 2012, a Butler County judge dismissed a first-degree murder charge against Edwards, the boyfriend, because Jayla’s autopsy had not been completed. Butler County Attorney Darrin Devinney said at the time that a murder charge could be re-filed after he received a completed autopsy report with a finding on a cause of death. The autopsy has been completed. It found that the cause of death was complications of blunt-force injuries of the head and that the manner of death was homicide.

No murder charge has been re-filed.

Edwards, 30, is in prison after being convicted of drug crimes from a 2011 case.

An ‘unsafe environment’

Vittitow, the paternal grandmother, said an El Dorado police detective, Jeff Murphy, told her he had been to the home where Jayla was living to investigate child abuse but didn’t find anything that could be acted on. She said he told her he had been asked to go with an SRS social worker to the place where Jayla was living because of known drug use at the home.

Murphy said Thursday that he couldn’t comment.

Brian Dempsey, director of prevention and protection services with DCF, said he couldn’t comment on Jayla’s case. But in general, he said, social workers investigating reports of child abuse are encouraged to request that a law enforcement officer accompany them to a home if they feel it might be unsafe for them to go alone.

The risks can include the level of safety in the surrounding neighborhood, a vicious dog or a remote location, said Freed, the DCF spokeswoman. Often social workers have to go places where they aren’t welcome.

“If the social worker is out there in an unsafe environment, that is not going to help us protect the child,” Dempsey said.

Once at the location, a social worker uses risk-assessment tools to determine the safety level for the child, he said. If a child has to be removed right away for their protection, law enforcement has authority to do it.

If illegal drugs are present, it doesn’t automatically result in the child being removed. The problem could be solved through community services, Dempsey said.

“Any child death is a tragedy … and horrific,” he said. “We empathize with families that are going through this tragedy in their lives.”

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