Prosecutors, acting on questions raised by The Eagle after the newspaper received a tip, recently discovered eight more reports of suspected abuse of the girl, bringing the total to 17. Those eight reports are from 2010 until this year. Bo Rader Photo illustration
Prosecutors, acting on questions raised by The Eagle after the newspaper received a tip, recently discovered eight more reports of suspected abuse of the girl, bringing the total to 17. Those eight reports are from 2010 until this year. Bo Rader Photo illustration

In Need of Care

Prosecutors receive new information in child torture case

The Wichita Eagle

January 09, 2015 6:39 AM

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Erin Sizemore, a lawyer for the DCF.

The Kansas Department for Children and Families may have been contacted more than 17 times before police removed a girl diagnosed as a victim of child torture from her home in March, a hearing Friday revealed.

Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett said Friday that it is unclear how many reports of suspected child abuse and neglect might have been filed about the girl, who was 14 and weighed 66 pounds when police took her and three other children into protective custody March 28.

When prosecutors filed a child-in-need-of-care petition on behalf of the girl and other children in her home April 1, the DCF provided information about nine allegations of abuse or neglect.

But prosecutors, acting on questions raised by The Eagle, discovered eight additional reports of suspected abuse of the girl in December, bringing the total to 17. Those eight reports are from 2010 until this year.

Assistant District Attorney Sandra Lessor said the DCF gave her a new packet of information Monday. Prosecutors still were reviewing the file Friday but told a judge they think they now have a complete record of reports of child abuse and neglect of the girl.

A child-in-need-of-care petition alleges that her adoptive parents at times chained her in a windowless basement room with an alarm on the door and gave her a bucket to use as a toilet.

The parents, who first fostered the girl and then adopted her, have denied the allegations.

The Eagle has written about the case as part of its “In Need of Care” series. The newspaper is not naming the girl or her parents to protect the girl’s privacy.

Bennett attended Friday’s hearing, which his office sought to determine how many times people contacted the state agency charged with protecting children to try to get help for the girl.

“The Office of the District Attorney has an obligation to ensure complete discovery is provided in all cases,” Bennett told The Eagle in an e-mail Friday afternoon. “We take this responsibility very seriously, and we will continue to engage in active dialogue with all investigative agencies we interact with, including DCF, to ensure we live up to that responsibility.”

Sedgwick County District Court Judge Patrick Walters asked Lessor, who is prosecuting the case, if it was unusual not to get all previous reports of abuse or neglect from DCF as part of a petition.

Lessor said she has been prosecuting child-in-need-of-care cases for 17 years.

“This is the first time I have been made aware of records that have not been previously provided,” she said.

“What’s your level of confidence today that you have all the records?” Walters asked her.

She told Walters she felt assured she now had the complete file.

“At the time we filed the petition and the amended petition, we were not aware there were records that DCF had that we did not have,” Lessor told Walters.

Lessor said her office contacted the DCF on Dec. 2, “inquiring about records. It came to our attention that we might not have all the records.”

On Dec. 3, the office started receiving information regarding reports of abuse or neglect that had not been previously provided.

According to a filing in the case, “petitioner was informed that the hard file was in Topeka so a complete review could not be completed.”

On Dec. 11, Lessor said, DCF told her office it would not provide any additional records for the child-in-need-of-care case. There also is a separate criminal case against the parents.

Lessor told Walters that DCF said that “what we had was all we were going to get.”

Erin Sizemore, a lawyer for the DCF, told Walters on Friday that the state had provided all the previous reports.

She said previous reports regarding the girl that were screened out and not assigned to a social worker had not been included when the petition was filed. She said that was standard practice.

DCF spokeswoman Theresa Freed told The Eagle by e-mail later Friday that “It is not policy and procedure for the social worker to copy” all reports in which no further action is needed or that are not assigned for further assessment.

But The Eagle has reviewed other petitions that include information about screened-out reports.

At the beginning of Friday’s hearing, the parents’ lawyer, Michael Cleary, again asked Walters to close the case to the media. The Eagle has been the only media outlet covering the case. Cleary said that publicizing the case is “hurtful to everyone.”

Last year, Judge Tim Henderson, then presiding judge of the juvenile division, agreed to allow The Eagle access to child-in-need-of-care petitions, which typically are confidential and out of public view. Chief Judge James Fleetwood was involved in The Eagle’s discussions about access to such cases.

Walters told Cleary that he was not involved in the agreement but added, “I feel I’m bound by those orders.”

He overruled Cleary’s motion to close the case to The Eagle.

Walters said he would schedule new dates for a pre-trial conference hearing and a trial for the parents in the child-in-need-of-care case.

The parents also face criminal charges. Prosecutors have accused them of beating the girl with a foam hard-core bat and a broken curtain rod “whereby great bodily harm, disfigurement or death” could have been inflicted, the criminal complaint against them says.

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 hearings on the criminal charges were rescheduled a seventh time last month and are now set for Jan. 27.

An amended petition seeking termination of the parents’ rights said the pediatrician who diagnosed the girl as a victim of child torture told social workers the parents were a physical danger to her and other children in their home and no amount of therapy would change that.

Reach Deb Gruver at 316-268-6400 or dgruver@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @SGCountyDeb.

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