They hadn’t taken a bath or brushed their teeth in a month.
That’s what a 12-year-old Wichita girl told social workers recently after she and her siblings got cleaned up at the Wichita Children’s Home. They had been living without electricity or water, court documents say, because their parents hadn’t paid the utility bills.
Prosecutors filed a child-in-need-of-care petition on behalf of the four children July 30 after police removed them from their home during a welfare check three days before.
Neglect happens every day in homes across the Wichita area. In state fiscal year 2014, which ended June 30, physical and medical neglect of a child made up about 18 percent of all child-in-need-of-care cases assigned for investigation by the Kansas Department for Children and Families.
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Since February, The Eagle has been regularly reviewing child-in-need-of-care petitions and is following several cases through the system, including this one. To protect children’s privacy, The Eagle is not identifying them or their parents.
The petition alleges that the children were covered in bug bites, some scabbed over and some fresh. That the youngest child, a 7-month-old, hadn’t been to the doctor since she was born. That the youngest boy, who is autistic and nonverbal, was kept in a locked house out of fear he would run away.
People hear about “dirty house” cases and may think it sounds draconian that police remove children because of how a house looks, Sedgwick County Deputy District Attorney Ron Paschal said.
But a dirty house is one thing, he said. A filthy house that can affect a child’s health is another.
“We’ve all had a house that’s been dirty before. My house is dirty right now,” Paschal said Friday.
“When we talk about these kind of cases, we talk about houses that are so severe or so chronically dirty that they will … present some kind of risk to the child.”
Paschal remembers a case in which a family was using a bathtub as a toilet because the home had no running water. The family urinated and defecated in the tub.
A girl in the home cut her foot on a broken beer bottle in the yard, got in the tub to use the bathroom and became sick with a severe infection that threatened her life. He recalled another case where a wall appeared to be moving with cockroaches.
“It’s not uncommon to see children who are living in filth,” Paschal said. “Not dirty houses, but filth.”
Neglect cases grow
The number of reports of child abuse and neglect in Sedgwick County has increased 31 percent since 2009, records from the state show.
The state agency that investigates child abuse and neglect, formerly known as SRS, received 12,989 reports in Sedgwick County in the state fiscal year that ended June 30. The department assigned 7,438 of those intakes to a social worker for further review.
Physical abuse accounts for 33 percent of the cases. Physical neglect makes up almost 14 percent, and medical neglect makes up almost 5 percent.
“It takes a significant concern before (a neglect case) is going to rise to the level where it gets assigned to investigate,” said Diana Schunn, executive director of the Child Advocacy Center of Sedgwick County. “Any time there is that potential for short-term or long-term negative outcomes, those are the cases where we get involved.”
Neglect manifests itself in various ways. A child may be seriously underweight or short for his age because he isn’t being fed regularly. Or he may show up to school dirty on a regular basis, wearing the same clothes over and over. He might need to go to a doctor for a problem that’s been ignored.
Or parents may leave children alone, as was the case in May when a maintenance worker discovered a 1-year-old in a closet at a Wichita apartment complex. The mother said she put her son in the closet when she took the child’s father to work.
In some cases, a combination of problems threaten a child’s safety.
“Neglect is often an ongoing situation. It’s a combination of things that are occurring,” Paschal said. “Hygiene, attention issues, nutrition. We see a little bit of everything when it comes to neglect.”
Brian Dempsey, director of protection and prevention services for the DCF, said a report initially may be made because, say, a child is coming to school dirty.
“A lot of times with any report, that’s the tip of the iceberg and when we engage the family, we find other issues that (need to be) addressed as well,” Dempsey said.
In the case filed late last month, social workers sent all of the children to Via Christi Hospital St. Francis, where doctors examined them and treated them for bug bites.
The next day, investigators began interviewing the children and the parents. Asked by social workers whether she understood why she and her siblings had been taken away, the 12-year-old girl said “because my parents are working on getting the bed bugs fixed,” the petition says. All of the children, including the baby, had bug bites.
The girl said her family did not have air-conditioning. She said she shared a room with her baby sister and opened windows in the home to try to keep cool. She said her parents brought home bread, jelly and peanut butter for the children to eat.
The oldest boy in the home said he shared a room with his younger brother, who is autistic. The girl said her parents “have to lock the doors because the (boy) will run out of the house and down the street,” according to the petition.
The oldest boy told social workers his parents brought home chips and pudding to eat.
“It’s nasty,” he said of their home, adding that it smelled.
The oldest girl told social workers her home would be better if someone could help her parents “get the house clean.”
Despite the allegations, the girl said she thought she and her siblings were safe in the home.
The children’s parents wouldn’t let social workers into their house, owned by a relative, the petition says.
Social workers interviewed the father July 28 in front of the home. He also had bug bites, the petition says.
When social workers asked for access to the home, the father said he couldn’t find his keys. He later called the children’s mother, the petition says, and told her, “They want in the house.”
He told investigators the children were bitten by bugs while playing outside. He denied that the home was unlivable and said there may be fleas in the home because the children brought a toy home from a friend who had pets. He later told social workers the family had consulted a lawyer who said not to let investigators in without more information.
The father said the family did not receive assistance of any kind. He said his wife worked, and he was getting involved in wind and solar energy but didn’t have any customers yet. Social workers later interviewed the children’s mother by phone.
One of them “explained the importance of seeing the home to make sure it is safe for the children to return to,” the petition says. The social worker explained the state would not return the children to the home without seeing it.
The mother confirmed there was no electricity or water at the home, court documents say.
The mother said she remembered the state previously had offered the family preservation services but she and the father “thought we were okay on our own at that point so we just didn’t think we needed services.”
She said the family had to buy a new vehicle recently and it cost more than what they had expected. A “giant water leak” under the house caused the water bill to get “way too expensive and out of hand,” the mother said.
The mother confirmed that her son with autism was not receiving any services.
“I don’t know where to go for him either,” she said, according to the petition. “He’s too old for Rainbows.”
Rainbows United serves children with special needs from birth to age 21, according to the nonprofit group’s website.
The DCF had two previous reports about the family, one from January about the oldest girl not attending school regularly. The DCF “addressed the concerns with the family and referred them to Saint Francis Community Services. The family was unable to be located and DCF was provided with a false address. DCF closed the case,” the petition says.
On Feb. 13, the DCF received a report that the baby had tested positive for cannabis. “There were additional concerns that (the baby) had not been seen by a physician since her birth. The intake was screened out,” the petition said.
The state requested a clinical interview assessment of the parents and the oldest three children, medical exams for all the children, dental and vision exams for the three oldest children, and developmental examinations for the two youngest children. Social workers who observed the baby said she seemed happy and on track developmentally.
Signs of neglect
Neglect can be easy to miss, experts say, but there are telltale signs.
“The person who the child spends the most time with can tell you,” said assistant district attorney Sandra Lessor, who prosecutes many of Sedgwick County’s children-in-need-of-care cases.
Common signs are:
Being underweight or short for one’s age.
Medical conditions or problems that aren’t being treated, including vision and dental issues.
Lack of parental supervision.
Refusal by a family to let someone into a home.
Public awareness of neglect is important, said the DCF’s Dempsey.
“Certainly in some of these scenarios, if nobody is in that home, it’s hard to see,” he said. “That’s why rely on schools, for example.”
If people suspect child abuse or neglect, they should report it, Dempsey said. Too often, experts say, people don’t want to get involved or make a fuss.
The DCF can offer or refer services to parents struggling financially or who need help with parenting or household skills, Dempsey said.
“The best place for any child, as long as it’s safe, is in the home,” he said.
Lessor had a simple piece of advice to help children in the community: “Keep your eye open for your neighbor kids.”
Suspect child abuse or neglect? Report it
Confidential reports may be made by calling the Kansas Protection Report Center toll-free at 800-922-5330.
The Kansas Department for Children and Families says on its website: “Every call is taken seriously and every effort will be made to protect your identity.” The number is answered 24 hours a day.
In situations where a child’s safety is at immediate risk, people should call 911. More information about reporting is available at the DCF website, www.dcf.ks.gov/Pages/Report-Abuse-or-Neglect.aspx.
If you are required by law to report suspected abuse or neglect – for example, if you are a teacher, doctor, social worker or therapist – you may use the Kansas Intake/Investigation Protection System. A complete list of mandatory reporters is available at www.dcf.ks.gov/services/PPS/Pages/MandatoryReportersChild.aspx.
How to get help
The Kansas Children’s Service League hotline for parents, 1-800-CHILDREN, offers education, resources and referrals.
How to give help
Give or volunteer
Child Advocacy Center of Sedgwick County, which helps abuse victims navigate services and resources, needs new or gently used children’s clothing; toys for boys ages 5 to 14, such as Hot Wheels and footballs; and gas cards for families. The center also needs financial donations and volunteers.
Donations may be dropped off at 130 S. Market, Suite B183, Wichita, KS 67202. More information is available at www.cacsckansas.org or by calling 316-660-9494.
The Wichita Children’s Home is where children who have been placed in police protective custody initially stay. The home is the only emergency residential center in Sedgwick County open 24 hours a day.
The home at 810 N. Holyoke keeps a list of needed donations and volunteers at http://wch.org/giving/wishlist. More information is available by calling 316-684-6581.
Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children offers free training for volunteers who want to advocate in court for an abused or neglected child. More information is available at www.casaofsedgwickcounty.org or by calling 316-866-2920. The volunteer form is online.
Wichita Area Sexual Assault Center also seeks volunteers. More information is available at www.wichitasac.com/volunteer or by calling 877-927-2248.
Become a foster parent
Kansas children need foster parents.
To become foster parents, you must:
Be at least 21 years old.
Be able to meet basic income guidelines.
Be able to provide adequate bedroom space and a separate bed for each foster child.
Have reliable transportation.
Complete 30 hours of free training in Partnering for Safety and Permanency – Model Approaches for Partnerships in Parenting.
Agree to use nonphysical forms of discipline for children.
Be willing for everyone in your household to undergo a complete background check.
There are different levels of foster parenting.
Family foster care parents provide children with temporary homes until they can return to their own homes, be placed with relatives, find adoptive homes or become adults.
Respite care providers give foster parents planned time off to recharge.
Emergency providers care for children just coming into foster care who have not been placed in a home yet.
The state contracts with two foster care providers. More information is available by calling Saint Francis Community Services toll-free at 866-999-1599 or going online to www.st-francis.org or by calling KVC at 316-618-5437 or going online to www.kvc.org.
Reports of suspected child abuse or neglect in Sedgwick County
Reports received in Sedgwick County
Reports assigned for further investigation in Sedgwick County