How a malnourished girl got help from the Missouri system, then vanished

Kansas City StarJuly 2, 2012 

Six years ago, Jacole Prince admitted that she intentionally withheld food from her 4-year-old daughter to keep her from going to the bathroom too often.

The girl weighed just 26 pounds, the size many babies reach at 18 months. Already malnourished, and continuing to lose weight, she had to be hospitalized.

The state of Missouri said then, in early 2006, that Prince had neglected to properly care for her daughter. The girl and her younger sister were removed from the mother’s home, according to Jackson County Family Court records obtained by The Star. Before Prince could get her daughters back, she’d have to complete a list of requirements set by the state.

In just over a year, she apparently did. By March 2007, when the older girl was in kindergarten, the state deemed Prince a better mom and returned both girls to her.

A month later, the older girl stopped going to her school and dropped out of sight. It was as if she never existed. Authorities believe now that the girl was locked away inside her mother’s apartment. They allege she was often kept in a closet, struck with a fist when she soiled herself and not allowed to play outside or attend school.

A child whose neglect had brought her into contact with state social workers and family court officials, who had been treated at a hospital for malnutrition and who had attended school, had been all but forgotten.

Until the call.

On June 22, a state child welfare worker and Kansas City police officers followed up on a hotline tip about a little girl locked in a closet who was not allowed out to eat or use the bathroom. The call led authorities to 1318 Highland Ave., apartment No. 11.

Neighbors told them that Prince lived there with two little girls, ages 2 and 8, who were well-fed and well-dressed, who had bikes and scooters and who went to school and played with other children in the apartments at T.B. Watkins Homes. Authorities persisted, though.

Inside the two-bedroom apartment, they found the third daughter, now 10, in a second-floor closet amid her own urine and feces. She had no light, no toys, no bed in the tiny space. The closet’s two doors had been tied with a rope or large shoestring. A portable crib had been shoved into place as a barricade.

“This is one of the most serious cases I have seen,” Family Court commissioner Molly Merrigan said four days after the girl, called “LP” in police records, was rescued.

She weighed just 32 pounds. She had many scars and bruises, evidence of physical abuse, authorities say.

When Prince was arrested, she told authorities that she put her daughter in the closet when she had to leave the house, according to court documents.

LP told authorities that the closet was her room, where she’d be locked in for days at a time. She said she wasn’t allowed to eat every day.

She said she didn’t want to go home again.

Though officials with the Department of Social Services say they can’t confirm that Children’s Division caseworkers ever worked with the Prince family, court records show the extent of involvement the state had in 2006 and 2007.

Once Prince got her children back, there’s no record in the court file of another hotline call or incident that involved the state or family court. As far as child-protection authorities knew, their work was done.

“There’s no system in place for us to watch all children” all the time, said Mary Marquez, juvenile officer with Jackson County Family Court.

“Unless we were to follow every case forever, until every child is 18.”

She said people who ask how these types of tragedies can occur should be putting the question to the adults who were in the house.

Yet many still see LP’s case as one in which a child slipped through the cracks. They wonder how, after being in the system and protected for a year, this girl couldn’t be saved from apparent years of abuse.

They question how a child could vanish inside apartment No. 11.

“Why didn’t anyone go looking for her, check on her?” said Tameika Johnson, who lives across the courtyard from Prince and talked with the mom nearly every day, but who didn’t know about LP. “Why didn’t they look into why she wasn’t at school? … Why didn’t the hospital where she was treated check on her?”

Sitting on the ledge outside her apartment, Johnson looked up at No. 11.

“How does a little girl disappear? I’ve been asking myself that.”

In the system

Prince was 18 when LP was born. Her birth certificate doesn’t name her father.

Two years later, another little girl came along. And by the time Prince was 22, in late January 2006, she found herself at Children’s Mercy Hospital with LP, who was tiny and severely underweight. Many doctors consider a child’s measurements, including weight and head circumference, as important as blood pressure and other vital statistics.

According to court records, the hospital had diagnosed the girl three months earlier with failure to thrive. Children’s Mercy had set up treatment appointments for her, but records show Prince failed to show up with her daughter. She didn’t return to Children’s Mercy until Jan. 31, when LP required hospitalization.

The two children were removed from Prince’s custody and soon were placed in the care of Marcus Benson, her boyfriend and the father of her younger daughter. (The couple would later have another child, who will turn 3 in September.)

During that time, LP started kindergarten. Years later, when authorities rescued her from the closet, she would talk about the times she played on the school playground.

At first, LP and her sister saw their mother only during supervised visits. But by mid-June, Prince was allowed to see the girls without supervision, including overnight visits, records show.

As they lived with Benson, Prince worked with the Children’s Division toward reunification. According to her attorney at the time, Prince was doing everything she needed to do to get her daughters back home.

One of the last requirements she needed to fulfill was finding a place for her family to live, and according to court records she moved into T.B. Watkins in January 2007.

“… Jacole Prince has actively followed the direction of the Children’s Division since that time,” her attorney wrote in a late February 2007 motion for the case to be released from family court. “There appear to be no further services that the children are in need of from the court … which the mother is not able to provide without jurisdiction of the court.”

In early March 2007, the Family Court ruled that the children should be reunited with Prince and released the family from court jurisdiction.

Generally speaking, observers said, the court often continues to supervise cases for at least a short period of time when a family is first reunited.

The Family Court’s juvenile office didn’t oppose reunification.

“I do believe from the information we had then, we believed the Children’s Division would maintain an open case on the family,” said Marquez, who has been with the Jackson County Family Court since 1987. She said once a case is released from court jurisdiction her office is no longer involved and can’t know what follow-up occurs.

The Missouri Department of Social Services is prohibited from commenting about specific cases, spokeswoman Rebecca Woelfel said. Even though parts of the Prince case file in Family Court are public record, she said, state law prohibits her agency from discussing any details.

She would say only that “the Missouri Department of Social Services strongly encourages anyone who suspects child abuse or neglect to call our toll-free hotline at 1-800-392-3738. The Missouri child abuse and neglect hotline is answered 24 hours a day, every day, all year round.”

In and out of school

At 5, LP started kindergarten at Woodland Elementary School in August 2006, according to the Kansas City Public Schools.

She didn’t finish the school year, dropping off the enrollment list in April 2007.

District officials said they couldn’t say whether calls were made to inquire about the child’s absence or to learn if Prince had made other arrangements for the child.

The district has gone through such massive upheaval since then that there is no one left in administration to explain the practical application of its truancy guidelines in 2007, said district spokeswoman Eileen Houston-Stewart.

This August, a new truancy plan with several layers of checks and balances will go into effect, Stewart said.

“We are tracking students from day one,” she said.

Teams made up of social workers, attendance specialists and truancy officers will follow up with phone calls and visits when children do not have an excused absence. Truancy officers, who are Kansas City police officers, will write tickets to parents who don’t send their child to school.

Typically, school districts put considerable energy into tracking teenagers because they directly affect graduation rates. But the new Kansas City program will target every student in preschool through 12th grade, she said.

Sometimes the best checks fail, said Jim Caccamo, who oversees the Head Start preschool program in Kansas City.

“We are often quick to be negative, particularly with the Kansas City, Missouri, school district,” he said. “But it could be that the kindergarten teacher did follow up and was told something that was very plausible.”

Someone who sets out to deceive won’t be caught off-guard by a phone call, Caccamo said. “ ‘Oh, we’re so glad you called to ask about her. She’s now living in Tuscaloosa with her father,’ ” he offered as one possible fib.

No truancy plan is foolproof, he said.

“If somebody wants to hide a kid in a closet,” Caccamo said, “they’re not going to give you answers to the questions you asked.”

Some residents at T.B. Watkins say Prince told them she had an older daughter who lived with her father. She told others that the girl’s father was dead and the child lived with an aunt.

Maintenance workers at Watkins conduct at least one inspection a year, going through apartments to ensure everything works. That includes opening closets and checking door hinges.

Since November, crews had been inside Prince’s apartment three times, twice for inspections and once in March to replace a water heater in a downstairs utility closet. Each time maintenance workers need to go inside an apartment, residents must receive 48 hours’ notice, unless it’s an emergency such as a fire or burst water pipe.

“Our staff has assured us when they were in the unit, there was nothing to indicate there was anything wrong,” said Edwin Lowndes, executive director of the Housing Authority of Kansas City, which owns and maintains the public housing complex.

Lowndes said the maintenance and property staff had no way of knowing that a child allegedly was being abused.

“It’s a devastating situation,” he said. “The reaction from the staff is like, ‘How could anyone do this to a child?’ … There was never any indication this was happening. Nothing to indicate a child was living in a closet.”

Though her neighbors didn’t know about LP, Prince stated on her current housing application that she had three children.

When the water heater was replaced in March, the maintenance worker did see three children in the apartment. One lay on the sofa, covered by a blanket.

‘Anyone in here?’

Longtime neighbors told police not to bother on June 22.

They wouldn’t find anyone home inside apartment No. 11, the neighbors said, because Prince and her two little girls had left 20 minutes before.

What about her third daughter?

“No, we have lived here for several years and she only has two daughters that stay here,” a neighbor said, according to court documents.

The state worker was insistent. Police officers eventually told the Housing Authority staff to get a key.

They searched the first floor, then started up the stairs. As they reached the second floor, the stench of urine overwhelmed the officers, the prosecutor said later.

One bedroom had no bed — just a portable crib stuffed with blankets and shoes and pushed against the closet doors. They saw the doors were tied shut.

“Is anyone in here?” they called.

A small voice answered, “Yes.”

An ambulance took LP to Children’s Mercy Hospital.

She wears a toddler’s 2T shirt. Her 4T pants sag on her tiny frame. In the six years since her last visit to the hospital, a doctor told the prosecutor, LP had gained just six pounds.

She was diagnosed again with failure to thrive, but this time she also had multiple injuries that were healing, according to authorities. She had sores on her head, scars and bruises across her body from being beaten, according to court documents.

Family Court commissioner Merrigan commended the police officers and Children’s Division worker who found LP.

“She and the cops wouldn’t leave,” Merrigan said. “They saved that child’s life.”

Officials at Children’s Mercy said they could not speak about the case.

But there is clear protocol at the hospital anytime abuse or neglect is suspected. An entire team of social workers, nurses, nurse practitioners, physicians and others works inside a special clinic within the hospital. A back door allows patients to come directly from the emergency room into the clinic, said Amy Terreros, who is the lead nurse practitioner for the child abuse clinic.

The first contact usually is a social worker. They’re the ones who typically make hotline calls because of their ability to more easily track the case. “They’re just kind of the gatekeepers,” Terreros said.

Medical providers ask the child basic questions to help guide the physical examination. The clinic leaves forensic interviews to others.

Children 2 or under receive a full skeletal X-ray in case they can’t communicate about an injury.

If physical abuse is established, medical providers at the clinic ask to examine their siblings as well.

Should a parent later skip or cancel an appointment at the child abuse clinic, the scheduler automatically notifies the physician or social worker, who follows up. If the problem continues, the Children’s Division is notified.

“Other than that, we can’t do anything to force the parent to bring the child in. That is in the hands of Children’s Division,” Terreros said.

In the end, a survivor

Those who thought they knew Prince best, the other moms living at the housing complex, have spent several days feeling guilty, wondering how they could have missed this.

Should they have asked Prince more about the little girl some thought was living with another relative? Should they have asked to go inside her apartment, even though Prince never wanted anyone inside?

And what about that soft tapping on the wall a next-door neighbor sometimes heard? Was that little LP reaching out?

Some want to see Prince. Tell her that she’s not alone. Ask her why she couldn’t confide in the people who are more like family than neighbors.

“I would love to talk to her, tell her that Miss Cinthea would have been there for her, all the time,” said Cinthea Williams, who lived in neighborhood since 1997 before moving about two years ago. She still cooks for the children at the adjacent Clymer Community Center and calls all the kids at T.B. Watkins “my babies.”

She said she saw LP’s younger sisters twice a day this summer, for breakfast and lunch.

Williams sees the pain inside the housing complex. Women there help each other out, she says. Watch each others’ children, feed them if there’s not enough food at home. They don’t judge, she said, just support.

On Wednesday, as darkness fell, about 50 people gathered at the complex’s basketball courts to light candles for LP.

Randall Gilmore Sr., who said he has raised his own children as a single dad, organized the vigil.

“Hold up your heads knowing you did the best you could,” he told dozens, including some who wiped tears from their eyes. “Keep on doing what you do.”

Finding the girl in the closet has changed many people. Some of Prince’s neighbors have vowed to pay closer attention and reach out to struggling moms.

“We have to wake up and say something,” Veronica Johnson shouted to others at the vigil. “Closed mouths don’t do nothing.”

That’s a point authorities want to emphasize: For all the system’s checks, family members and neighbors are often the best eyes and ears when a child is being abused.

Meanwhile, the investigation is continuing, the Jackson County prosecutor’s office said Friday.

Prince has been charged with three felony counts: assault, abuse of a child and child endangerment. A not-guilty plea was entered for her, and she is being held on a $200,000 cash-only bond.

Benson has been questioned by authorities but has not been charged. He declined to comment.

The process has begun to sever their parental rights.

For their part, members of the Housing Authority maintenance and property staffs have asked for more training. They’d like workers with the Children’s Division to refresh them on telltale signs of abuse and neglect.

“I don’t think they dropped the ball in any way,” said Lowndes, of the Housing Authority. “But you can always improve.”

Others want to help LP, eager to know how she’s doing and where they can send donations. They want her to know that people care.

“We have to stop mourning,” Gilmore told the group. “This should be a celebration. She came out in rags, but she didn’t come out in a body bag.”

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