Politics & Government

‘This little girl was tortured’: Kansas to pay father after girl died of abuse

An 18-month-old girl who lived in an El Dorado meth house died after the Kansas agency that investigates child abuse did nothing, a 2014 lawsuit said. Her brain had swelled, her teeth had been forcibly removed and she had tested positive for meth.

The 2012 death of Jayla Michelle Haag Watters was horrific, Kansas officials said Monday as they approved a $75,000 settlement with her father, Steven Watters.

The payment illustrates the struggles that the Kansas Department for Children and Families continues to face, with questions still being asked about child deaths and children who slip through the cracks.

The case “is something I’m ashamed of,” said Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita. But DCF changed its policies to prevent a similar situation from occurring in the future, she said.

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Wagle sits on the State Finance Council, made up of the governor and legislative leaders, who approved the settlement. The council didn’t disclose the settlement amount, but Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat who sits on the council, said it was $75,000.

“This little girl was tortured,” Hensley said.

Had the case gone to trial, the state would have ended up paying significantly more, Hensley said. The lawsuit, filed in Sedgwick County District Court, sought “in excess of $75,000” plus costs and any other relief.

The settlement amount is “not nearly enough considering her suffering,” said Randy Rathbun, the Wichita lawyer who filed the lawsuit on behalf of Jayla’s father. He added that it is difficult to successfully sue DCF and there was concern that her father wouldn’t be able to get anything.

Although DCF was to blame, Rathbun said, “the principal wrongdoer was the county attorney,” who ignored DCF’s request to have the child removed from her mother. “Unfortunately, he’s absolutely immune from lawsuit” under Kansas law, Rathbun said.

Butler County Attorney Darrin Devinney couldn’t be reached for comment Monday afternoon.

The Eagle has reported that DCF said it tried to remove Jayla from her mother five months before she died. But a prosecutor in the Butler County Attorney’s Office determined the state lacked evidence, according to a timeline the DCF provided.

In 2014, Devinney said Assistant County Attorney Cheryl Pierce “made the right call. I would have made the same call. I believe it was responsible to make” based on information at the time. “Do I feel terrible that we didn’t have grounds to take this child into protective custody? Absolutely,” he said.

“But we can’t forecast abuse or homicide,” Devinney said. “There was just a lack of sufficient evidence.”

DCF spokeswoman Taylor Forrest called Jayla’s death “horrific and a terrible tragedy.”

“Child safety has been Secretary Gina Meier-Hummel’s number one priority” since she arrived at the agency late last year, Forrest said.

Meier-Hummel has made a number of policy and procedural changes to improve child safety and well-being and has streamlined and strengthened the state’s center for fielding reports of abuse and neglect, Forrest said.

“These changes have been intentional and purposeful to help ensure future tragedies do not occur again,” she added.

Rathbun has said that DCF should have done more to protect the girl.

According to the lawsuit, “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 lawsuit said.

On the morning of March 21, 2012, another resident of the duplex where Jayla was living heard the girl crying. 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 lawsuit said.

The next day, El Dorado police went to the hospital to investigate a report of possible child abuse. They also 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.

Haag, the girl’s 24-year-old mother, pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter. Haag’s boyfriend, Justin Edwards, pleaded no contest to involuntary manslaughter.

The death took place just one month after then-Gov. Sam Brownback named Phyllis Gilmore as director of DCF. Gilmore’s controversial leadership of the agency ended in December 2017.

Gov-elect Laura Kelly has not yet said whether she will keep Meier-Hummel as secretary. She has promised change at the agency, though she hasn’t offered specifics.

“DCF itself has been so dysfunctional and so under-resourced in the past eight years,” Kelly told reporters a few days after her election.

She added: “They don’t have the social workers at the front end to do family preservation, they don’t have them at the back end to do reintegration into adoptive or biological families” and oversight of the agency has not been good.

Kelly’s comments suggest she will propose additional funding for the agency, but she has not put forward any specific spending plans.

Wagle on Monday expressed skepticism of Kelly’s proposals, but appeared open to working with Kelly to improve the agency’s performance.

“From what I’ve heard so far, it appears to me the new governor has a nice, long wish list and all of it comes with a price tag. So I’m not interested in spending more money than what we’re bringing in. But I’m definitely willing to work with her and resolve problems and make sure DCF and our children in need of care have our needs met,” Wagle said.