© 2024 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

A Kansas City mother tried to get her kids out of foster care. She was one of 2022's last homicides

Three women in green rust and white sweatshirts look at a smart phone nestled together on a sofa.
Laura Ziegler KCUR 89.3
Dezirae Curts (center) looks at texts her daughter Shayla sent the day Shayla was murdered. Dezirae's sister, Darcie, is at left; her other sister Sydnee is at right. Pictures of Shayla and her kids hang on the wall.

Shayla Curts, the young mother of a toddler and infant, was pregnant with her third child when she was shot and killed by a man in December. Her family says this might not have happened if Jackson County's child welfare system had worked like it was supposed to.

Shayla Curts owned all the bad choices she’d made and was getting her life back on track. Tall and striking with piercing blue eyes, she had the word “Dreamer” tattooed in lilting cursive on her forearm, along with butterflies and a celestial compass.

Without a car, Curts had been walking to her job at a fast-food restaurant near her mother's house north of the Missouri River in Kansas City, Missouri. She’d been making daily calls to look for affordable housing.

She was determined to get her kids — 4-year-old Mars and 1-year-old Winter — out of foster care and make a home for her growing family. She was 31 weeks pregnant with another baby girl she’d planned to name Soleil, or sun, in keeping with the solar and seasonal themes of her other kids’ names.

A close up of a pair of footies that read "Good Mom"
Laura Ziegler KCUR 89.3
One of the hardest things for Shayla Curts's family has been retrieving her belongings. This pair of footies was with her clothes, an affirmation to herself she was turning her life around.

On Dec. 6, just before 8 p.m., she was one of Kansas City’s last homicides of 2022.

Emmett Williams, 33, was hanging out with Curts and two friends in a house at 4921 Bellefontaine Ave., according to court documents. Curts left the room to go downstairs. Williams followed her. A few minutes later, witnesses told police, they heard a gunshot. Police found Curts dead at the scene.

Shayla’s mother, Dezirae, her eyes swollen from crying, said she had lost not only her daughter but her best friend.

“I had her when I was 15," Dezirae said through tears. "So she’s been with me. She grew up with me. We’ve been through everything together.”

A near-record 169 people were killed in Kansas City, Missouri, in 2022, according to the Kansas City Police Department. Police attribute most of the killings to arguments. Others, they say, were the result of retaliation. In some, the victim just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But Shayla’s family wonders if her murder was different. Did problems with the Jackson County, Missouri, foster care system force Shayla into an unnecessarily risky living situation?

“She would still be alive if they’d have put her, like they promised, in housing,” Dezirae said. “They were looking for housing, shelter or transitional housing, just somewhere she could take the kids.”

Trying to make it work

Shayla had an on-and-off relationship with the father of her 1-year-old and the daughter she was about to deliver. She loved him. But he was intermittently abusive, and after she delivered Winter last year, she went to a domestic violence shelter.

She was asked to leave when some of the women complained her toddler was being disruptive. Curts said she did the best she could while nursing her newborn. When she left, she had no place to go, so officials with the Jackson County Children's Division put Mars and Winter in foster care.

Young woman with hair in bun sits with crossed arms smiling and looking away.
Laura Ziegler KCUR 89.3
Shayla Curts, pictured during an August interview with KCUR in Brookside, was proud of all she was doing to meet the requirements to get her kids out of foster care.

Without any charges of gross negligence or abuse, the goal was to reunite the family as quickly as possible. Caseworkers were supposed to be helping Shayla find housing — either subsidized or transitional — to speed up the process. That didn’t happen.

“She was told her housing was coming up soon and she was so excited to have her own place with all three of her kids,” her sister Sydnee, 23, said. “Then nobody called. Nobody reached out.”

The lack of communication between foster families and case workers is a critical problem in Missouri. Low pay, high stress and often traumatizing work has led to a shortage of case workers.

Shayla Curts and I talked about this when I was reporting on the issue in August of last year. She said she’d had half-dozen different case workers since she lost her kids. She went months without seeing them, even though state law requires regular visits. Meanwhile, she was doing everything the court ordered her to do.

“I’ve been on it,” Shayla told me last summer. “I’ve done it. So not to be able to get a hold of the main person working my case is not OK. You’d think when you do everything you need to do, things will fall into place. Well, not if other people aren’t doing what they need to do.”

Curts’s family court attorney, Laurie Snell, said many of her clients have faced similar frustrations. Maybe this case, she said, will be a wake-up call for state lawmakers to better fund children's services and for child welfare officials to see how a lack of contact puts clients at risk.

“(Shayla) just needed a place to be with her kids,” Snell said. “We should be able to provide for those mothers that need that. She might not have ended up where she was and where she got killed.”

Family comforts mother (middle) who is crying. Young woman kisses mom's forehead. Little boy in front
Laura Ziegler KCUR 89.3
Dezirae Curts's mother (far right) flew in from Amsterdam after Shayla Curts's murder. Dezirae's 7-year-old son is in the front.

The Curts family has swooped in to comfort one another. Dezirae’s mother, Leesa Grauel, immediately flew to Kansas City from her home in Amsterdam when she learned of Shayla’s murder. Dezirae’s twin sister Darcie came in from Virginia with Sydnee, who’s living with her aunt and going to school.

They sat together on the sofa, sharing stories, laughing and crying as they remembered Shayla.

“It’s been so hard. Every picture of us as kids we were just like this,” Sydnee said, putting her index and middle finger together.

The girls stayed close but grew into different young women. Shayla, an artist, was spiritual and a free spirit. Sydnee was more pragmatic and of this world.

She was studying business and finance in Virginia. She knew her sister had been struggling.

“You know you wished you could have reached out more,” she said. “Things I wished I could have said to her and never got the opportunity.”

A confession

Around 4 a.m. the day after the shooting, Emmett Williams called 911 and said he had shot someone. In a statement to police, Williams said he and Curts had known one another for several years and saw each other from time to time.

He said Curts was “always antagonizing him with words,” calling him names that questioned his masculinity.

Typically, he ignored the behavior, according to police reports, but Williams said the recent loss of multiple family members and other mental health issues, along with a problem with illegal drugs, caused him to “snap.”

Williams has been charged with second-degree murder and armed criminal action. The Jackson County Prosecutor is waiting on the results of an autopsy of the unborn baby to see whether charges will change.

The Curts family held a ceremony in December where Shayla lay in her coffin swaddling 31-week-old Soleil. They plan to hold a celebration of life on Jan. 28.

I partner with communities to uncover the ignored or misrepresented stories by listening and letting communities help identify and shape a narrative. My work brings new voices, sounds, and an authentic sense of place to our coverage of the Kansas City region. My goal is to tell stories on the radio, online, on social media and through face to face conversations that enhance civic dialogue and provide solutions.
KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and award-winning podcasts.
Your donation helps keep nonprofit journalism free and available for everyone.