The Sedgwick County District Attorney’s Office is going to court to find out just how many times people reached out to the state agency charged with protecting children to try to get help for a girl diagnosed as a victim of child torture.
Prosecutors on Wednesday asked for a hearing to “clarify the record” about previous reports of suspected child abuse of the girl, who was 14 and weighed 66 pounds in March when police took her and three other children in the home into protective custody.
The report that prompted the girl’s removal from her home this spring was allegedly the ninth time in a little more than five years that someone had voiced concerns about her welfare to the Kansas Department for Children and Families.
But prosecutors, acting on questions raised by The Wichita Eagle after the newspaper received a tip, have since discovered that there were eight more reports of suspected abuse of the girl, bringing the total to 17. Those eight reports are from 2010 until this year.
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The number of reports made by people concerned about the girl is important, because it raises questions about whether the state agency could have done more to protect her – and acted sooner.
District Attorney Marc Bennett said Wednesday afternoon that the DCF “had not given us all the (reports)” involving the girl.
Bennett’s office filed a petition April 1 seeking an order of protection for her and three other children.
Asked why the state had not provided information about all reports regarding the girl, he said, “I don’t know why.”
“We do have an obligation to make sure the court is fully informed,” he said, adding that he is not sure whether there are even more previous allegations of abuse.
When contacted Wednesday, Theresa Freed, a DCF spokeswoman, said the agency was “reviewing the case.”
When The Eagle contacted her Nov. 21 about whether there were additional reports of suspected abuse, she said, “I’ll certainly share this information (with her office), so the case can be reviewed, but we cannot comment on specific cases.”
The pleading filed Wednesday by Assistant District Attorney Sandra Lessor said that on Dec. 2, the district attorney’s office “contacted (the DCF) and inquired about any prior (DCF) history that had not been provided to the district attorney’s office.”
On Dec. 3, the pleading says, the district attorney’s office “began receiving additional information regarding prior DCF history that had not been previously provided.” The district attorney’s office “was informed that the hard file was in Topeka so a complete review could not be completed.”
On Dec. 11, the pleading says, the district attorney’s office “was informed that no additional records would be provided to the district attorney’s office as part of the ... case.”
“As of today’s date, the district attorney’s office has been unable to verify that all (DCF) records regarding this family have been provided to the plaintiff,” the pleading says. “Accordingly, (Lessor) requests a hearing before the court to clarify the record regarding certain DCF records which may not be in the possession of the district attorney’s office.”
Diana Schunn, executive director of the Child Advocacy Center of Sedgwick County, said the child protection system depends on “good, open communication, sharing information in a timely manner in the most complete way possible.”
Schunn couldn’t talk specifically about this case but said “in any case, it’s our obligation as a system to look back and say, ‘Are there things we can learn from?’ ” That’s true when mistakes are made, she said, and when things go well.
The Eagle has been writing about the girl’s case since June as part of its In Need of Care series.
The girl’s parents, who adopted her when she was 4, according to court records, face criminal charges in addition to the child-in-need-of-care case. The parents were to have been her refuge from a biological mother whose neglect left her severely underweight and developmentally delayed.
The petition gives details usually not available to the public. In February, judges granted The Eagle access to child-in-need-of-care cases to be transparent about how the system works and to show the public the extent of child neglect and abuse. The Eagle has agreed not to name any of the children it writes about as part of the series. The Eagle also is not naming the parents to protect the identity of the children.
The girl, the petition says, “reported she is chained to the bed when the bed is clean and she forgets to take a bath because her parents do not want her to get the bed dirty. (She) said she sleeps on the concrete floor when this happens but parents make sure that (she) has enough room to lie down.”
The girl said she had been hit on her arms, legs and back but never on the head. Her brother, though, told a school counselor she was beaten on the head every day with a cut-up curtain rod. He also said their parents kept her in a locked room in the basement, made her drink hydrogen peroxide, punished her with hot showers and often fed her just bread for dinner.
He “reported parents used to chain (the girl) to her bed so she would not leave and (the girl) would at times sleep in the rabbit cage,” court documents say.
The parents denied the allegations and asked for a trial in the child-in-need-of-care case, which is scheduled for next month. In March, they told investigators with the state that the children were lying to get the parents in trouble and that the boy was upset that his computer had been taken away.
The original petition involving the girl noted these previous reports:
▪ On Jan. 9, 2009, someone reported the girl came to school with a large scratch on her face and a bruise on her left cheek. “It was also reported that (the girl) was very thin, often asked for food at school and gets in trouble with her parents when they find out she asks for food,” the report says. The DCF found the allegations to be unsubstantiated and said no services were needed.
Freed had said in an earlier story that unsubstantiated means that after assessing a report of alleged child abuse or neglect, the DCF finds that the facts or circumstances do not provide “clear and convincing” evidence to meet the legal definition of abuse or neglect.
▪ On Jan. 27, 2009, someone alleged that the girl had sores on her mouth, tongue and lip so painful it hurt her to eat. After an assessment, the DCF determined the allegations were unsubstantiated and that services were not needed.
▪ On May 13, 2010, someone reported that the girl needed new glasses, that the parents had refused to provide them and that she “was made to sleep in the bathtub as punishment for wetting the bed.” Again, the DCF determined the allegations were unsubstantiated and services were not needed.
▪ On Nov. 5, 2010, someone reported that the girl was without proper care and that her parents were overwhelmed by her behavior. “The family refused services, and the case was closed,” the petition says.
▪ On Feb. 8, 2011, someone reported that during a dental exam at school, a dentist found evidence of blunt-force trauma to the girl’s jaw. The girl “reported she did not know how it occurred or who/what caused it,” according to the petition. The DCF determined the allegations were unsubstantiated, but the parents began receiving therapy services.
▪ On May 26, 2011, someone reported that the girl “was without proper care and control. It was reported that (she) has missed school, is treated unfairly by parents and would be isolated for the summer,” the petition says. The parents continued services through the Wichita Child Guidance Center.
▪ On April 19, 2012, someone reported that the girl “has red marks on her face and was sleep-deprived. It was also reported that (she) is a bed wetter and that parents are keeping her awake late into the night and it is affecting her school work,” the petition said. The DCF determined the allegations were unsubstantiated. The family refused services, and the case was closed.
▪ On Oct. 30, 2012, someone reported that the mother hit the girl with a baseball bat. The DCF determined the allegations were unsubstantiated and services were not needed.
The father faces three counts of child abuse, two counts of aggravated battery, one count of aggravated endangerment of a child, one count of criminal restraint and one count of criminal damage to property. The mother faces the same charges with the exception of criminal damage to property.
Their preliminary hearing in the criminal case is scheduled for next week.
Reports of abuse
▪ The Department for Children and Families, the state agency that investigates child abuse and neglect, received 12,989 reports in Sedgwick County from July 1, 2013, to June 30, 2014. The department, formerly known as SRS, assigned 7,438 of those reports to a social worker for further review.
▪ From July to October, the latest statistics available, the DCF received 4,034 reports of child abuse in Sedgwick County. The department assigned 2,367 of those reports to social workers for further review.