Politics & Government

Investigations into Kansas child deaths are shrouded in secrecy

Brooklyn Coons' death is still shrouded in secrecy

The grandparents of Brooklyn Coons continue to want accountability and transparency from the Kansas Department for Children and Families nine years after the death of their granddaughter. Larry and Mary Crosetto of Coffeyville say the system faile
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The grandparents of Brooklyn Coons continue to want accountability and transparency from the Kansas Department for Children and Families nine years after the death of their granddaughter. Larry and Mary Crosetto of Coffeyville say the system faile

Sometimes Larry Crosetto puts on old home movies or thumbs through family photos to go back in time.

He sees granddaughter Brooklyn — Brook — sitting with her mama, playing in the bathtub or pushing her new toy vacuum. Before long, the lingering emotional pain creeps in, and Crosetto sees something else: a child lost to a Kansas child welfare system that he views as broken and with no accountability.

“I sat there the other day and thought, ‘Is this just going to die?’ ” said Crosetto, who after Brook’s death spoke out against the system that he says failed to protect her. “Does no one care about these children?”

Brook was not quite 2 in early 2008 when she was beaten and shaken to death by her father’s meth-addicted girlfriend. In the weeks before his granddaughter was killed, Crosetto met with a state social worker about bruises on his granddaughter. Others had reported concerns about marks on her older brother. The worker, Crosetto said, told him that investigating abuse was the Police Department’s job, not hers.

Since the toddler’s death nine years ago, dozens more Kansas children have died of abuse and neglect, and others have been seriously injured. Like Brook, many were already known to social workers.

Yet, in most cases, the public still doesn’t know what — if anything — the Kansas Department for Children and Families did or could have done to protect the children, or whether the department took any steps after a tragedy to improve the system.

The Kansas Legislature in 2004 passed a disclosure law meant to provide transparency after a child’s death or serious injury. But a Kansas City Star investigation has found that the law is largely ineffective, allowing the department to operate in a cloud of secrecy.

Since last January, The Star has made numerous requests for documents to see how officials with the department, commonly known as DCF, were complying with the law. First, the newspaper asked for copies of all media requests for records and DCF’s responses since the legislation went into effect in 2004.

Six months later, the department provided copies of 15 requests that pertained to the death or serious injury of Kansas children.

Of those requests, covering 10 cases, the department released information about DCF involvement in only one instance, and those details appeared to put the agency in a good light regarding that child’s case.

In several cases, judges kept information sealed at the request of prosecutors, police departments and even parents suspected of abusing their children.

“The law is there to protect children,” said Rep. Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat and attorney who has worked in family court. “But the current DCF administration is using it as a shield right now to prevent people from investigating or shining the light on what’s going on there.”

That means the public doesn’t know how the department responded to hotline calls or whether they were fully investigated.

Were there warning signs before a young Johnson County boy ended up in his mother’s attic, dehydrated, malnourished and close to death? What about the south-central Kansas boy whose mom bludgeoned him with a rock and then stabbed him several times as he slept? Or Adrian Jones, the Kansas City, Kan., boy who authorities say lived through chronic abuse before he starved to death in his home in 2015?

According to media reports and family members, all three of those children were known to the child welfare system before their torturous abuse.

“There has to be accountability of the agency that we have designed to protect our children,” said Jan Sheldon, a professor at the University of Kansas in the Department of Applied Behavioral Science and the School of Law. “If we don’t speak for the children who can’t speak for themselves, who will speak for them?”

When the public doesn’t have scrutiny of what the child welfare agency is doing, Sheldon said, it’s difficult to identify problems such as a shortage of social workers or inadequate state funding.

The agency has been under fire since an audit last year concluded that it failed to ensure the safety of kids in state foster care.

Over the past year, DCF officials refused requests for an interview with The Star — either in person or over the phone — instead insisting that questions be emailed, which the newspaper did. On Thursday, a reporter went to the agency’s Topeka office and was granted a brief interview.

“We are constantly thinking about how can we improve protocols and policies,” Phyllis Gilmore, head of the Department for Children and Families, told The Star. “We’re constantly striving to make sure children in Kansas are safe.”

Department spokeswoman Theresa Freed added that Kansas “has one of the safest child welfare systems in the country.”

Before the Thursday conversation, Freed had said by email that the department takes each death and critical injury seriously and completes an investigation to identify anything that may have gone wrong.

Information often should not be provided to the public until after a criminal case related to a child’s death or serious injury is completed, Freed wrote.

“Under our laws, the alleged perpetrator or perpetrators, as the case may be, are presumed innocent until proven guilty,” she wrote. “The premature release of the information to the public could interfere with the State’s prosecution of the crime or perpetrators’ defense.”

Advocates counter that releasing details about the agency’s involvement with a family and abused child should not hurt a prosecutor’s case. It doesn’t in other states, they say. Plus, it can take years for a criminal case to run its course and, in that time, failings in the system can go undetected, posing a risk for other children.

Questions about the system’s performance make it even more vital, legislators and advocates say, that the public knows what workers did or didn’t do in Kansas’ most severe abuse cases. Like that of Adrian.

Prosecutors say the chronically abused 7-year-old boy starved to death in his family’s rented home in Kansas City, Kan. Some of his remains were found in a barn. Authorities said his father and stepmother fed his body to pigs.

The boy’s maternal grandmother, Judy Conway, said she’s aware that hotline calls were made, but she doesn’t know if they were investigated.

“They need to be transparent,” Conway said of DCF. “It should be full disclosure and nothing held back. The state of Kansas failed Adrian. ... We need to know why all these children had to go through this.”

In Brook’s case, the Crosettos filed a federal lawsuit to get more information about the agency’s investigation into their granddaughter’s death and to hold the caseworker responsible. That suit was later dismissed, but the grandparents continue to fight for accountability of a system they say robbed them of watching their granddaughter grow up.

“I think DCF has an obligation to the public to let it be known if they are doing their best to protect children,” Crosetto said. “The public also has the right to know when DCF did not do their best to protect a child. ... If the law says they have to release those records, how can they not?”

‘We had to water it down’

Child welfare systems are meant to be private to protect intimate information about a child and his or her siblings — details such as their medical history and the sometimes-toxic environments they live in.

But when tragedies occur, reviewing what workers and the system did can be vital to making improvements and creating best practices. That’s why more than 30 states have adopted laws allowing some disclosure after a child dies or is seriously injured.

“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,” according to “State Secrecy and Child Deaths in the U.S.,” a report by the San Diego-based Children’s Advocacy Institute.

On paper, Kansas appears to be a model for that type of transparency. Better than many other states, including Missouri.

The Kansas law says that information shall become public record after a child’s death or near death. Some states simply say information may become public. In Missouri, the release of information after a death or serious injury is up to the director of the Missouri Department of Social Services, based upon a review of the potential hardship to siblings.

Lawmakers in Kansas pushed for the legislation after the 2002 death of Brian Edgar, a 9-year-old whose adoptive parents wrapped him in duct tape from his ankles to the top of his head. He suffocated in their Overland Park home.

The goal was to allow for full disclosure after a death or serious injury, said former Republican Sen. David Adkins, who sponsored the legislation. But child welfare officials pushed back, he said, and compromises had to be made.

In the end, the law included a provision that says any “affected individual” should be notified when a request for records is received. Within seven days, those individuals can ask the court to keep the records sealed. A judge then rules on the motion.

Among the affected individuals? Prosecutors, law enforcement officers and the DCF secretary all can ask the court to keep records closed, as can the parent who allegedly abused or neglected the child or knew what was going on.

“My intention was no exemption,” said Adkins, now in Kentucky, where he is CEO and executive director of the Council of State Governments. “That if something tragic happens to one of our most vulnerable citizens, you have to embrace that tragedy as a teachable moment — find out what happened and why. But we did what we had to do to get the law passed. We had to water it down.”

In the words of Ward, that provision now “usurps the law.”

Adkins admits that the compromises have made the law “feel a little hollow.”

“It’s a paper tiger — it’s probably not worth the ink on the page,” he said. “That’s disappointing. I would like to think that out of the death of a small innocent life, we could create an improved system.”

Ward said he thinks the law should be revisited and a new one crafted.

“It clearly has too many loopholes,” he said. “We should make a clear statement that when a child is killed or dies under suspicious circumstances while in state custody or while there’s been significant (DCF) involvement, that information should be released. Period.

“We need a new law that makes sure we get that information.”

The key, experts say, is for people to realize the goal of releasing the information isn’t a “gotcha” to place blame. The purpose of the law is to shine light on the system.

“It’s not that the processes don’t exist to get this information,” said Max Kautsch, a Lawrence lawyer who works with the Kansas Press Association. “It’s that they’re unclear, and the knee-jerk reaction by the system appears to be in favor of nondisclosure. ... They are making it as difficult as possible.”

‘We can’t learn...’

In Kansas, openness hasn’t always been an easy sell. Privacy appears as much a part of the state’s fabric as wheat fields and sunflowers.

“Midwest people, we are just different,” said Rep. Brenda Landwehr, a Wichita Republican who worked with Adkins to pass the disclosure law in 2004. “Not that we want to be secret, but private. You don’t want to air your dirty laundry out there if it’s going to hurt others. You just handle your business.

“But that doesn’t mean that wrongdoing should be held private. Especially when the government is involved.”

When a child dies or is seriously injured, privacy must be secondary to identifying what went wrong, advocates and legislators say.

“We as a community, a county, a state, we can’t learn about how to improve a situation unless we learn what the reality of a situation is,” said Sen. Molly Baumgardner, a Louisburg Republican. “The law is written such that information is supposed to be released and the spirit of the law is so we can have those safeguards to double check, ‘Is this an isolated, terrible thing that has happened that can be prevented?’ 

Although the law in Missouri doesn’t require disclosure, information is regularly released. The Missouri Department of Social Services drew fire four years ago when it initially declined to release information after a 10-year-old Kansas City girl weighing just 32 pounds was rescued from a closet. Because the agency typically released information, many questioned why the agency had appeared to change its policy.

Ten months after the girl known as LP was rescued, the Missouri agency released information on her case to The Star. And since then, disclosure in cases has been routine.

At the start of this year, the Missouri agency had received requests for information in 74 individual cases since February 2009.

The department approved release of information in 69 cases.

In Kansas, according to documents provided to the newspaper last year, DCF released information only in the case of Jayla Haag, a toddler from El Dorado who was beaten to death in 2012. She had severe head injuries, a fractured jaw and multiple bruises in different stages of healing. Several of her teeth had been forcibly removed, and she tested positive for methamphetamine.

A Wichita Eagle reporter submitted a request for information under the Kansas Open Records Act two years later, in April 2014.

In Jayla’s case, the state didn’t notify any “affected individual” and within days of the request provided a timeline of events to the Eagle detailing the agency’s involvement. Included in that timeline was a notation that in October 2011, DCF filed an affidavit with the Butler County district attorney’s office asking that Jayla be removed from her home.

Two months later, the agency received notice that the prosecutor’s office didn’t think there was sufficient evidence to remove Jayla, according to the information DCF provided to the Eagle. Jayla died in March 2012.

When asked why DCF provided information in Jayla’s case and not others, the agency spokeswoman pointed to the wording of the Eagle reporter’s request.

“He asked for information and not records,” Freed said. That distinction, she said, meant the agency had discretion to release facts.

Yet The Star asked for information as well as records in the case of Adrian Jones, the Kansas City, Kan., boy: “Please include information about any hotline calls and all documents where Adrian is involved.”

DCF responded that “affected individuals” had to be notified. Six days later, the agency told The Star that someone had filed a motion objecting to any release, so “we are unable at this time to fill your request.”

Also, Freed said, in Jayla’s case, the mother had already been prosecuted, pleading guilty to involuntary manslaughter.

“The release of information did not appear as though it would impact any future legal proceedings,” Freed wrote.

At that time, however, the mother’s boyfriend was still under investigation, a fact that had been publicized then. Several months later, the boyfriend was charged with murder and eventually pleaded no contest to aggravated battery, involuntary manslaughter and child abuse.

Freed did not address the fact that the DCF’s release of information occurred before the boyfriend had been prosecuted.

‘An amazing young man’

The news of Adrian’s death in the fall of 2015 shocked Kansas City and the country.

Father accused of feeding 7-year-old son to pigs

Kansas City, Kan., police officers had gone to the home of Michael and Heather Jones on an armed disturbance call the day before Thanksgiving in 2015. Authorities soon learned that Adrian — one of seven children who had been living in the home — had been missing for an extended time. Investigators searched the property on Thanksgiving Day and found remains in a barn.

In early December, The Star requested records and information from DCF. Had the child welfare agency been in contact with the family? Were there hotline calls? Had DCF been alerted to the abuse Adrian endured?

Prosecutors have said the family had a history with child welfare agencies in Kansas and other states.

After the newspaper and at least five other media outlets asked for information and records about Adrian, prosecutors and the Police Department were notified because their roles make them “affected individuals.” Within the seven days specified by the law, they asked a judge to keep his DCF records sealed. The judge agreed.

In Missouri, the director of the Department of Social Services agreed to release information from his state, but a call to Wyandotte County changed his mind.

“Per a request to delay release of the record from the Wyandotte County, Kansas, District Attorney’s office, we will wait to provide the record to you,” Sarah G. Madden, special counsel for the Missouri agency, wrote to The Star in late December 2015.

Adrian’s stepmother, Heather Jones, pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and was sentenced in November to life in prison with no chance of parole for 25 years

Several weeks before her sentencing, the prosecutor said releasing information about DCF’s involvement could jeopardize the criminal case.

“Our case isn’t just about homicide, it’s about chronic child abuse,” said former Chief Deputy District Attorney Sheryl Lidtke, who is no longer with the prosecutor’s office. “Our office has taken the position we want these records confidential at least until we pick the jury” for Adrian’s father.

Michael Jones’ trial is set for April.

Lidtke said she also understands why the public should know what steps the child welfare system took to protect a child.

“If the system did something or didn’t do something, that needs to be known, too,” Lidtke said. “For me, that’s a matter of timing. You just need to wait.”

Adkins, who sponsored the disclosure law, said he disagrees with prosecutors who say releasing information would jeopardize the criminal case. And, he said, it’s crucial that factors contributing to agency failures be identified in a timely manner.

“If a little boy had been on a plane that crashed, we would know what happened,” Adkins said. “It’s a shame he had to be eaten by pigs and not have a thorough inquest into what happened, subject to public scrutiny. At the very least, that’s what we owe that innocent little boy.”

Judy Conway often thinks of her grandson — who “had two big ol’ dimples” — and replays in her mind the times she spent with him.

“He was just an amazing young man,” Conway said. “When he’d see me, he’d say, ‘There’s my nana.’ 

She wonders why the child welfare system couldn’t have helped him.

“I just feel that from everything I’ve heard, and the calls that were made and interviews of the kids, how could they not have seen something?” Conway asked. “I’m not a caseworker, I don’t work for DCF, but I would notice things. How many other people saw things?”

‘They need to be accountable’

In the living room of Mary and Larry Crosetto’s home, a photo of Brook sits next to pictures of her older brother and a cousin she never had the chance to meet.

Brook’s absence leaves a hole. The Crosettos are bringing up her brother, who is a teenager.

“I think of how he doesn’t have a playmate, a sister who he thoroughly loved,” Larry Crosetto said. “He loved being a big brother.”

The couple think back to when they lost Brook, just a few months after they lost their daughter, Angela. Just 24, Angela died of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA. Brook and her brother eventually went to live with their father, who was estranged from Angela.

Before long, the Crosettos — who often watched the children on weekends — started noticing bruises on Brook. Her brother showed up at school with a slap mark across the face, prompting the school to notify the child welfare office.

The Crosettos photographed Brook’s bruises and took her to the doctor on Christmas Eve 2007 to be checked out. The doctor called police and sent a letter to the child welfare agency.

“I expected them (agency workers) to take her out of that situation and either let us have her, have the two children, or have them somewhere safe,” Mary Crosetto said. “But nothing was ever done. They never investigated, as far as I could tell.”

Larry Crosetto said he offered to give the caseworker a disk with all his photos, and she told him to give it to police. The officer who saw Brook at the hospital sent his report to the child welfare agency and assumed it would further investigate and handle the matter, a court document shows.

An investigation by the Kansas attorney general’s office later determined the social worker had ill will toward the Crosettos — dating back to their 1982 adoption of an infant — and didn’t act on their concerns. During that adoption, the Crosettos have said, they reported the social worker for not doing her job, and a judge rebuked her.

The Crosettos’ lawsuit against the social worker was dismissed when a judge ruled that the worker was entitled to “qualified immunity.” There was no evidence, U.S. District Judge Monti L. Belot wrote in his September 2013 decision, to show that the worker’s refusal to act increased the danger to the toddler.

If the Crosettos hadn’t sued, or if someone hadn’t filed a complaint with the attorney general’s office, the couple don’t think they would have received any information from the child welfare agency.

“They need to be accountable, and government officials need to be transparent with the reason of public safety,” Crosetto said.

Each time he hears on the news, or reads in a paper, that another child has died from abuse or neglect, he feels sick. And then he wonders.

“Is it another case of Brook, or did they actually do something to try to prevent this?” he said. “We don’t know what they are doing.”

Laura Bauer: 816-234-4944, @kclaurab

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