Kansas child welfare agency received repeated reports about 5-year-old girl before her death
The reports, which range from September 2022 to little more than a month before her death, warned that the child wasn’t supervised, was living in a home without utilities and was around drugs, among other allegations. A 25-year-old man has since been charged with capital murder, first-degree murder and rape.
TOPEKA — The state’s child welfare agency received multiple reports asking it to look into the case of a homeless 5-year-old before her death earlier this month.
The agency’s response: five home visits and a phone call, among other measures that ultimately didn’t prevent the child from slipping through the cracks of the state’s child welfare system.
The Kansas Department of Children and Families released a summary of the reports Tuesday in response to a Kansas Reflector open records request. The Kansas Reflector doesn’t identify child abuse victims or name victims of sexual assault as a matter of policy.
The reports, which range from September 2022 to little more than a month before her death, warned that the child wasn’t supervised, was living in a home without utilities and was around drugs, among other allegations.
Her death has sparked widespread community anger andreignited concern over DCF’s handling of children in the system.
On Oct. 2, police officers were sent to a gas station in southeast Topeka, where first responders were treating a young child who had been sexually assaulted, according to police.
She was taken to a local hospital for treatment of life-threatening injuries and later pronounced dead. Her former neighbors said she had been living in a homeless camp at the time of her death, the Topeka Capital-Journal reported. In connection with the case, 25-year-old Mickel Cherry has been charged with capital murder, first-degree murder and rape.
DCF officials said the agency would investigate her death.
“My agency is fully committed to a thorough review of the case,” said DCF Secretary Laura Howard. “We will take every step necessary to determine if there are policies and procedures that can be revised or added to effectively support families and help prevent another case like this from happening again.”
Out of the nine reports, six were assigned for investigation and three were either combined under an ongoing case report or found to be “duplicative.”
The first report, received Sept. 8, 2022, alleged poor home conditions and potential drug use. DCF offered the child’s mother services, which were declined, and the case was closed after her mother’s drug screening came back negative.
The next report, exactly two months later, was for a lack of supervision. DCF said the case was unsubstantiated, following an investigation.
Ten days later, DCF received a report that the mother had been arrested for driving under the influence with her child unbuckled in the front seat. She was placed with her father after the arrest.
The next report, received on May 18 of this year, reported the child was living in a “generally poor condition” home with no working utilities. A Child Protective Service investigation determined the case to be unsubstantiated and that everything in the home was in order.
On Aug. 29, DCF received another report about the lack of utilities, along with drug use in the home. CPS investigators visited the house five times in September but were unable to get into contact with the family, according to the report.
The final report, Oct. 2, lists the child’s death, opening a DCF investigation into physical and sexual abuse. In cases where a child dies in state custody, or in cases that had been referred to DCF investigators before the child’s death, DCF has to decide whether the child’s death was the result of abuse or neglect.
The agency confirmed sexual abuse was “substantiated,” but the physical abuse case is still under investigation.
Gov. Laura Kelly said the child’s death was an “unacceptable tragedy,” and asked the Legislature to introduce legislation increasing DCF transparency in such cases.
“We will urge the Legislature to get that bill to my desk early in the next legislative session,” Kelly said.
Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover, and House Speaker Dan Hawkins, R-Wichita, said the five-year-old’s death was proof the state needed to create an “independent” Office of Child Advocate, rather than one under Kelly.
“This young child’s tragic death could have been prevented had the agency and this administration done their jobs,” the statement read.
The Office of the Child Advocate, meant to provide oversight of the child welfare system and advocate for youth in care, has been caught in political crossfire since its creation. Kelly, a Democrat, created the division with an executive order to meet the demands of an overburdened foster care system after prolonged infighting when the state House and Senate couldn’t agree on who should oversee the proposed office.
Republicans have criticized the move, saying children in foster care should have independent oversight, instead of being under the administration of the governor.
The two said they would work to create an independent office during the upcoming legislative session.
This story was originally published on the Kansas Reflector.