It’s been more than a week since police found Zaiden Javonovich dead and his baby brother in critical condition in a south Wichita house.
Zaiden, 2, was dead and wrapped in a blanket in his crib. His 4-month-old baby brother’s abuse and neglect were so bad that he had to be taken to a hospital, police said.
The District Attorney’s Office and the Wichita Police Department say the parents’ abuse and neglect caused Zaiden’s death and his baby brother’s near death. The parents have been charged with first-degree murder.
But the Kansas Department for Children and Families says it has no finding that Zaiden died due to abuse or neglect. It says it can’t release any information on the children unless such a finding is made in its own, parallel investigation.
The Wichita Eagle’s request for DCF’s involvement with Zaiden and his parents was denied Thursday, citing a confidentiality exemption meant to “protect the privacy of children who are the subject of a child in need of care record or report.”
State lawmakers amended the law last year to require the department to release a summary of its previous contact with a child when the child dies of abuse or neglect.
But the DCF said in its rejection letter that the records are closed because “there has been no finding that Zaiden Javonovich died from child abuse or neglect.”
Mike Deines, the department’s spokesperson, said the DCF could not yet provide even a summary of its previous contact with Zaiden.
In an interview in March, Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly told The Eagle that the DCF would be more transparent with child death cases.
“We will be a whole lot more transparent about investigating incidents of deaths, and we will not be sweeping that kind of stuff under the carpet and hoping nobody notices,” Kelly said.
Release of information in child-death cases has been one of Kelly’s initiatives for reforming the DCF, and Zaiden’s death is the department’s first high-profile child abuse death case in the Wichita area during Kelly’s term.
State lawmakers within her own party say the DCF’s most recent denial sounds a lot like how the department functioned under Gov. Sam Brownback.
“That is the exact same excuse that the prior administration used,” said Rep. John Carmichael, a Wichita Democrat.
The DCF also refused to provide information about 5-year-old Lucas Hernandez a week after his body was found — and more than three months after he disappeared from his Wichita home — saying there was no finding that Lucas died of abuse or neglect.
Carmichael was one of the lawmakers who fought to change state law to require DCF to release records when a child dies or nearly dies.
Carmichael says he still has faith in Kelly and her pick for secretary, Laura Howard, but said the delay may be a holdover from past practices.
“Sometimes old ways among bureaucrats in government are slow to change,” Carmichael said. “And it looks to me like despite our best efforts last year, the agency is continuing to stonewall what I believe are legitimate requests for information.”
Kelly’s office defended the DCF’s decision not to disclose information about Zaiden until an investigation is complete, but said the department will release information as soon as it can.
“The law places limitations on the information that can be released by DCF, but we will do everything that we can to provide as much information as we can within the law,” said Ashley All, a spokesperson for Kelly’s office.
Carmichael and Rep. Jarrod Ousley, a Merriam Democrat, say the transparency law that was passed last year should make the release of records come more quickly.
“People have an absolute right to know if DCF is doing its job,” Carmichael said. “While I don’t know whether DCF did or did not do its job in this context, I know under the past administration there were multiple instances where these same types of records denials were as much motivated by a desire to cover up a lack of attention by the agency as they were to preserve anyone’s privacy.”
Ousley said the records should be released so the public — and lawmakers — can fix a broken DCF system.
“If you don’t know what’s wrong, you can’t fix it,” he said.
“We can make all the policy in the world, but if the practices don’t meet the policy, then I think that’s what helped get us into the current situation today,” Ousley said.
“If law enforcement close the case and turn it over to the DA” finding the child has been abused or neglected, Ousley said, “why is DCF not there yet?”
“When you’re talking about kids and death and this situation, I think it certainly becomes an issue of public health and public safety,” Ousley said.
“The governor and secretary are doing all they can to rebuild DCF following eight years of mismanagement and underfunding,” All said.
“Governor Kelly takes each one of these cases very seriously and is saddened by Zaiden’s death,” All continued. “The governor and her staff have been in close contact with Sec. (Laura) Howard and DCF staff since Zaiden’s tragic death and will continue to work with them to ensure information is investigated quickly and shared as soon as possible.”