In an apartment that reeked of urine, a Kansas City police officer called out.
“Is anyone in here?”
Neighbors had said not a soul was home. But a tiny voice answered from a barricaded closet.
Officers pushed aside a crib stuffed with blankets and shoes. Using a pocketknife, they cut open the doors that had been tied shut with a shoelace or rope.
Inside they found a 32-pound, 10-year-old girl surrounded by her own waste.
Hours after her discovery Friday morning, police tracked down her mother, Jacole Prince, 29, at her boyfriend’s place. Her two other daughters, ages 2 and 8, seemed well fed and clean by all accounts. The girls were taken into protective custody and Prince was arrested.
On Saturday, she was charged with assault, abuse of a child and endangering a child’s welfare.
Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker described the child’s living conditions as “completely atrocious.”
“All indicators are she spent a substantial amount of time in that room,” Baker said at a news conference.
The girl — identified only as “LP” — explained to police her appalling living conditions. According to court records, she had no room and no bed and was rarely allowed to leave the closet. And she regularly went for days without food.
She fit into a 2T shirt suited for a toddler. Her pants, a 4T, sagged on LP’s tiny frame.
Children’s Mercy Hospital officials told authorities that LP had been treated there in 2006 and weighed 26 pounds. She had gained only six pounds in the six years since that visit, court records showed.
Longtime neighbors said they had never even seen the child.
LP told officers the day she was freed from the closet that she wasn’t allowed to go out to breakfast with her mother that morning because “she messes herself.” LP told them that when she pees in her pants, her mother strikes her in the back really hard.
The little girl also told detectives that she had not left the closet for two days and does not eat every day. The child said she had not eaten Friday.
In court records, Prince acknowledged that she didn’t allow her daughter to leave the house because she was embarrassed of the girl’s appearance. She admitted that LP was so malnourished that she would probably be in trouble if someone saw her in that condition. LP remains hospitalized.
The mother’s boyfriend, who has denied knowing that the child was confined to the closet, hasn’t been charged in the case. However, Baker did not rule out further charges because the investigation is ongoing and it is too early to say if the abuse occurred for months or years.
“But amazingly, as children tend to surprise all of us, she had very good spirits. She was very cooperative with police. She let them know she doesn’t want to go back home,” the prosecutor said.
Baker said authorities were trying to determine whether LP had ever attended school. It also wasn’t immediately clear whether LP’s living conditions had been reported to authorities before.
But Baker said an anonymous phone call probably saved the little girl’s life. Someone called the child abuse hotline for the Missouri Children’s Division. The caller said three children lived at the apartment, but one child was forced to live inside a closet.
The state agency notified police. When they arrived at the apartment in the 1300 block of Highland Avenue, Prince wasn’t home. Authorities asked neighbors about the mother and three girls.
“She only has two daughters that stay here,” a neighbor told police.
After announcing the charges Saturday, Baker urged people to use the hotline whenever they suspect abuse.
“Friday was really a tremendous day where the hotline was used. Law enforcement was engaged and this little girl was literally saved from a horrendous situation,” she said.
Everyone must be vigilant in reporting neglect and abuse, said Roxane Hill, vice president of development at the Children’s Place in Kansas City.
The nonprofit agency helps abused and neglected children.
Hill urged people to call authorities even if they are only suspicious a child is being mistreated.
“Call the hotline. Let them know,” Hill said. “It’s everybody’s task in this community to care for children.”