KANSAS CITY, Mo.— Days after the malnourished girl known as LP was rescued from a dark and filthy closet last summer, medical staff wanted to gauge how far behind she had fallen.
Name some fruits.
SpongeBob, she said.
How about vegetables?
“A, B, C,” she told them.
The 10-year-old told Kansas City detectives even more. How her mother would call her things like “dusty tramp,” “bitch” and “dumbass.” And how when her mother would lock her in the closet, she would lie there and hope a police officer would save her.
After months of refusing to talk about LP and what may have allowed her to slip through the cracks, the Missouri Department of Social Services on Thursday released the girl’s file. The documents – more than 1,000 pages of court records, medical reports and social workers’ notes – reveal tragic details in a case that riveted this community for months and caused child advocates and Missouri state lawmakers to demand more openness.
The records show that even though the child welfare system’s safety net had managed to catch the girl once before, it failed to save her from years of alleged abuse and malnutrition.
The records show how extensively the state system, school officials and the family court were involved with LP and her family in 2006 and 2007. How the social worker, employed by a private nonprofit agency that DSS assigned to the case, focused on reuniting LP and her sister with their mother, Jacole Prince.
Once LP’s case wound through the family court, and a commissioner released jurisdiction over it, all guidance and oversight stopped. No one, according to an initial review of the records, visited LP once her case was no longer in the court.
The most we know about the next five years of LP’s life in her mother’s care, when she dropped out of sight, is what the girl herself told the people who rescued her June 22 after a call to the state child abuse and neglect hotline.
She told authorities she wouldn’t cry at home because she would get in trouble, the documents show. Her mother, she said, would never tell her she loved her or hug and kiss her. She never saw snow, and got scared when it stormed because no one would come to the closet and comfort her.
When she was allowed to take a bath, it was in cold water. She told a DSS worker that all she wanted was to take a bubble bath in hot water.
Prince, 29, has been charged with three felony counts of child abuse, child endangerment and assault in the first degree. She has pleaded not guilty and sits in jail awaiting trial. Her next hearing is scheduled for May 10. The father of LP’s two sisters, Marcus Benson, pleaded guilty to child endangerment and was sentenced to five years’ probation.
Child advocates and lawmakers who pushed for the release of LP’s records, and those in other recent child tragedies, say the public must know what happened in cases where a child dies or is seriously injured. It’s crucial, they say, to understand what the child welfare system did – or didn’t do – to keep a child safe.
“The public and the department have to be able to learn from the mistakes that were made in these tragic situations so that they never happen again,” said Rep. Jay Barnes, a Republican from Jefferson City, who with House Speaker Tim Jones called on the governor last month to direct the release of records.
What worries lawmakers and experts on open records is that it took 10 months to release LP’s file. Yet a law on the books for more than a decade was intended to promote the sharing of such documents.
“It shouldn’t be a battle every time to open these records,” said Doug Crews, executive director of the Missouri Press Association. “It’s not good for the general public not to know about these cases.
“There needs to be oversight and secret records don’t provide any oversight.”
The call came in at 8:50 a.m. that Friday last June.
… She is locked in a room all day. She is scared to use the bathroom, the caller reported. She is not allowed to go outside to play with the other kids.
The caller also said she had seen LP recently with red and purple marks on her body as if the girl she had been struck with a belt buckle.
In less than an hour, a Children’s Division worker and police arrived at Theron B. Watkins Homes, where Prince had lived since early 2007, shortly before family court reunited her with her two daughters. (Prince’s third daughter was born later.)
Although neighbors outside insisted there was no third child at the home, and Prince had only two young, clean and well-cared for daughters, the caseworker and officer persisted. They got management to let them in apartment 11.
Once inside, they climbed the stairs to a second-floor bedroom where a portable crib was shoved against two closet doors held shut by thick rubber bands around the handles.
Anyone here? the officer called out.
“I am,” said a small voice in the closet.
They rushed LP to the hospital by ambulance.
She weighed 32.64 pounds, an ounce or two less than she had in May 2006 when she was seen at a Children’s Mercy Hospital clinic, where she had been treated over several months for failure to thrive.
Once rescued from the closet, the girl was so dehydrated and her veins so fragile that doctors could barely draw blood, records show.
At one point, LP told authorities she didn’t want to go back home.
“I am so happy you guys came today,” LP told her rescuers on June 22.
The child welfare system first came into contact with LP in the fall of 2005.
On Oct. 7, Prince rushed the girl, her oldest daughter, to the emergency room at Children’s Mercy. LP was not responsive, and in and out of consciousness, when they arrived.
LP had been vomiting at home and had trouble standing up. She eventually passed out.
Doctors had to put the little girl, then 4, on a ventilator.
Prince told medical staff that she thought her daughter drank Pine-Sol.
The hospital believed the girl had been neglected and reported the concern to DSS on Oct. 12, according to the records.
Although a social worker eventually called a police detective about a possible criminal investigation, that detective declined to open one.
“He said he would leave it (in) our hands because Ms. Prince was at least smart enough to bring (LP) to the hospital after getting into pinesol.”
That hospital stay, though, did lead to follow up on LP’s physical condition and nutrition. Physicians were concerned about her low weight and diagnosed “failure to thrive.” More appointments were scheduled.
After missing two of those, Prince took LP back to Children’s Mercy at the end of January 2006.
Doctors still were concerned about her low weight. Prince admitted then that she withheld food from LP so she wouldn’t go to the bathroom as much.
At that time she was reported to DSS again, and in February, Prince lost custody of LP and the girl’s younger sister.
The two girls eventually were placed in the kinship care of Benson, the father of LP’s sister.
The court ordered Prince to complete parenting classes and work toward a stable home environment. She was allowed supervised contact with her daughters.
And over the months, she showed progress, according to records.
In early February, workers noted that she was “not very interactive/affectionate with the girls,” though she did give them hugs. But she didn’t pick them up and they did not run to her, according to the records.
A month later, the observations were better: “Jacole was a lot more interactive and playful with (LP) today than I had seen her.”
A few months later: “This worker has observed a great improvement in her interactions with her children since February 2006.”
In June 2006, the court gave Prince unsupervised contact with her daughters.
By the end of January, Prince was approved for her new apartment. The next month, her attorney petitioned the court to end jurisdiction of the case.
Although the guardian ad litem, who represents the interests of the child in court, had initially indicated she wanted to reunite the girls with Prince but keep the case under court jurisdiction for a few months, that didn’t happen. Court jurisdiction was terminated in early March.
On March 20, 2007, the social worker for Cornerstones of Care wrote that things were going well for the family.
“Jacole is caring for the girls and tending to what needs to be done.”
For 10 months, state officials refused to say anything about LP.
“State law prohibits release of information specific to a case or individual, so we could not confirm nor deny involvement in the case,” Rebecca Woelfel, the DSS spokeswoman, said in late June.
The Kansas City Star reminded Woelfel that a state law passed in 2000 allows for information to be shared when there’s a child fatality or near-fatality. That decision is at the sole discretion of the director of the Missouri Department of Social Services, after reviewing whether the information could harm siblings.
Woelfel then sent an e-mail in July stating: “This matter is now in the hands of the criminal justice system. We will reserve any further comments until the conclusion of that process.”
A joint investigation by The Star and the Springfield News-Leader in March found that DSS had apparently shifted its policy from one of openness to a culture of refusal. After years of releasing records after child fatalities, the state began denying requests after LP was rescued.
Top House leaders in Jefferson City stepped in last month and called on Gov. Jay Nixon to release the records that had been denied. Rep. Barnes, chairman of the Committee on Government Oversight and Accountability, also stressed the importance of openness and vowed to take action if records weren’t released.
Without the push, these new details about LP – her life before and the road ahead – wouldn’t be known. Nor would the public know how caseworkers tried to keep her family together, ultimately to LP’s detriment.
And it took almost a year to know that much.
“It needs to be more clear cut when those records should be released and what records should be released,” said Crews of the Missouri Press Association. “I think it’s a good step that the legislative leaders moved on this and requested these records to be released. I think it’s now in the legislature’s court to strengthen this area so there’s clarification on when these should be released.”
Jones, a Eureka Republican, said he wants to pursue this issue with DSS in the future. He’d like to sit down and come up with a comprehensive plan and “put a policy in stone.”
He said he wasn’t sure whether new legislation needed to be drafted, but if so, that should be looked into as well.
“These are instances where children are put in the custody of the state,” Jones said. “Therefore, the citizens have the right to know how DSS is handling our most precious resource, our children. When they are put in their care, we need to make sure that care is being maintained.”
(The Star’s Jason Hancock contributed to this report.)
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