How, when and why? A child’s body found in a cooler in 2016

T.K. was around 4 years old. Her death is considered suspicious but few answers have emerged.

EVERETT — The little girl’s remains were found in October 2016.

A search warrant led police to her body, in a red plastic cooler filled with concrete at the family’s south Everett mobile home.

She was identified in public records only as “T.K.” Her exact age was unclear, as was how she died and when.

Later, her full name was included in the annual report of homicides in Snohomish County.

Two years have passed, and the case at the sheriff’s office is still open. No charges have been filed in the girl’s disappearance, though T.K.’s parents repeatedly have appeared in other court cases involving their children.

Since the body was found, state social workers convened a group to conduct a fatality review of her case. That step is required by Washington law under some circumstances, including if the child received state services in the year before the death and if there are suspicions of abuse or neglect.

The panel found multiple instances in which the interactions between social services and T.K.’s family could have been conducted differently. However, it did not find evidence of what the state calls “critical errors” by employees.

At the time, the state Children’s Administration conducted such panels on fatalities as a division of the Department of Social and Health Services. That work now falls under the recently created Department of Children, Youth and Families.

The seven-page report on T.K.’s death is a public record, though large sections of the text are redacted.

Complicated

Little is known about her life.

She was born in May 2007. Her birth certificate didn’t list a father.

Her mother later identified multiple men as potential fathers, police say. Court records name one of them as the biological parent. He and the mother’s divorce started in 2009 and became final in April 2012.

Last year, after the death investigation became public, the state asked the court to amend the man’s child support payments. T.K.’s death was cited, among other factors.

T.K.’s mother in 2012 married someone else, who had been acting as T.K.’s father. Child Protective Services had repeated contact with the family, in part because both men have been accused of sexual misconduct involving the woman’s other children.

The Daily Herald generally does not name people in criminal cases when charges have not been filed. The newspaper also tries not to name suspects when doing so might identify victims of sexual abuse.

There is no sign that T.K. ever attended school. Some relatives say they were told that she had autism, though they weren’t sure from their own observations.

Relatives say their most recent sighting of T.K. would have been when she was between 3 and 5. The last solid evidence of her being alive is an immunization record from September 2010, according to police.

In 2016, she would have turned 9.

T.K.’s mother listed her as a dependant in requesting state benefits beginning in 2010 and continuing into 2015, another detail that drew scrutiny from investigators who doubt T.K. was alive during much of that time.

Earlier CPS reports had been closed. In one instance, the reason was that referrals had been provided for social services. Another report didn’t lead to conclusive evidence of abuse or neglect.

The panel’s review, in 2017, included interviews with three social workers who were involved in T.K.’s case in 2016, though many of the details of those interactions are withheld under privacy laws.

The panel noted that the family didn’t have any CPS referrals from summer 2010 until 2016, but stated that it would have been appropriate to check in on them or ask more questions during that period.

CPS took a report on June 6, 2016. At that time, the sheriff’s office was investigating sex abuse allegations involving the new husband and T.K.’s sibling. Another CPS report followed, 13 days later.

In August 2016, the woman reportedly told CPS that she didn’t have any additional children besides the ones living with her and didn’t mention T.K. Later, she said T.K. was residing with her father.

“The assigned social worker made repeated inquiries into T.K.’s whereabouts to arrange an interview. The mother provided numerous differing statements regarding the whereabouts,” the panel found.

A month later, the state told the mother it would consider removing her children from the home if she did not produce T.K. for a safety check.

The social worker also asked a detective for help, but the case was closed in September 2016 without T.K. being found.

Her remains were recovered by police on Oct. 29, 2016. The girl’s siblings who were living there were placed in protective custody.

While autopsy results were not released, the county’s 2016 homicide report lists the girl’s age at 4. The cause of death is marked as “Other,” while most of that year’s homicides are attributed to specific forms of violence such as firearm, stabbing or blunt force.

‘More curiosity’

The state’s review panel later found that more serious forms of intervention could have happened sooner. The report also recognizes that case workers are supposed to attempt less intrusive methods before seeking to end parental custody.

The mother’s repeated refusals to produce the child “should have caused more curiosity,” the panel said.

The state’s policy was that the CPS safety assessment in the family’s case should have included face-to-face contact with each child in the household.

The report adds: “If this fails, then (the agency) must make all efforts to locate that child.”

The situation also could have prompted the filing of a missing person report, the panel found.

T.K.’s mother has four past felonies, for forgery and theft. The biological father named in the divorce had previously spent time in prison before he was convicted in 2010 of assaulting one of T.K.’s siblings. The case initially had been charged as child rape. He still owes court fines.

The stepfather, meanwhile, later pleaded guilty to child molestation, his first felony. This past January, he received an alternative sentencing, with all but a year of the time suspended if he completed sex offender treatment. He was released from jail in September. He is not allowed to be around minors unless he is supervised by an adult aware of his conviction, and he is forbidden from dating anyone with young children.

The 2016 search warrant describes statements from multiple witnesses associated with the family. The document’s release also prompted national news coverage, including attention from People magazine and the National Enquirer.

The mother told a KOMO news reporter, “I don’t really give a (expletive) what anybody thinks — excuse my language — I really don’t. This is my life not yours.”

One witness had informed police that the mother became “irate” when one of T.K.’s siblings told a relative that the girl was dead.

Relatives also have suggested to detectives that the mother and stepfather married to gain legal protections from testifying against each other. Public records show the couple applied for a marriage certificate in August 2012, and the ceremony followed that October.

People who knew the family have told police they heard varying stories about what happened to T.K. Examples include a brain tumor, accidental drowning and being drowned by a sibling. They reported smelling foul odors at the family’s homes, and being told not to touch the cooler when it was stored in various locations.

Detectives told a judge in October 2016 that they were investigating the mother and stepfather for perjury and unlawful disposal of human remains, along with theft for allegedly collecting state assistance for the child.

Because the sheriff’s investigation is considered an open case, additional law enforcement records are not publicly disclosable. An agency spokeswoman said there was no new information to share.

Findings, the future

For the social workers, T.K.’s family history should have been given more weight in their decision-making, the state panel found. It also noted that it can be challenging for staff to find the time to read everything on each family they work with, but that information can be “imperative.”

The panel’s conversation included a discussion about how much social workers are paid and how that affects recruitment and turnover, as well as “the ongoing issue of vacancies and movement within the agency that impacts stability within the offices.”

The criminal case isn’t the only ongoing issue for T.K.’s immediate family. Many records around children and their guardianship are not public.

However, this past August, relatives were in court again regarding one of T.K.’s siblings. They mentioned that the children’s biological father had his custody rights terminated earlier this year. They alleged that “the mother’s substance abuse and mental health continue to interfere with her ability to parent.” Relatives said the child in their care was loved, safe and in counseling.

They were granted custody.

Rikki King: 425-339-3449; rking@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @rikkiking.

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