Nathan Ross on Friday told the leaders of Kansas child advocacy groups the story of watching his mother kill two brothers, then urged the groups to work together to avoid subjecting more kids to deadly conditions.
Speaking in Topeka before the board of the Kansas Children's Alliance, which lobbies for the interests of nonprofit child welfare agencies, Ross said one of the biggest challenges in their field is the competition between agencies for funding and services.
"Every minute we spend fighting each other, and backstabbing over who gets what program and how much, children are dying, and that's not acceptable," Ross said. "This isn't corporate America, where it makes sense that we're going to compete because our goal is to raise money. This is human services, where our goal is to save lives, and we can't save lives when we're fighting each other."
Ross, 30, is vice president of children and youth programs at FosterAdopt Connect, which supports abused and neglected children in Missouri and Kansas.
He recalls his family's tragic events, which made national news in 1999, in his new book, "Mourning after the Storm," and speaks openly about his past to inspire others engaged in social work.
Ross grew up in the Kansas City, Missouri, area. His mother, Mary Bass, had five children — a girl who was older than Ross and three boys, triplets, who were two years younger.
The mother would lash out at the children when a job or relationship didn't go well. Social workers came to the home 10 times to investigate abuse or neglect, Ross said. Every time, they closed the case without requiring any services.
When Ross was 8 or 9, his mother put him in charge of punishment, dictating the length and severity of spanking his siblings. Ross didn't want to disappoint her.
Sometimes the mother denied her children food for weeks at a time. They resorted to looking through garbage for something to eat.
She began to focus punishment on two of the triplets, gagging and tying them up in the basement. Someone reported them missing, prompting a final interaction with an investigator. The social worker accepted the mother's explanation that the kids were with their father, and left under the assumption that someone was just out to get the poor black woman.
A month later, the brothers escaped their basement captivity. When they tried to get food from the cupboard, they were caught by their mother.
Bass ordered Ross, who was 10 at the time, to fill the bath with scalding hot water. She then pushed the two young boys into the bath.
"By the time it was over, they were burned from their toes to their torso," Ross said. "My mom freaked out."
She wrapped the boys in gauze and placed them in a closet for two weeks. When she let them out, they were covered in gangrene from the severe burns.
"As we sat around," Ross said, "one of my brothers, he died in front of us. And the night that he died, we went from being people that no one knew on the corner of the street to being the Bass family that everyone was talking about. And everyone became outraged — but at first, not at the system. They were outraged at this woman. How could this person do this to her kids? How could someone be that cruel?"
The other brother died in a hospital.
Ross said he grew upset at the system that allowed this to happen. He still loved his mother but recognized she was crazy and in need of help. Before she snapped, social workers had told her she simply needed a timeout.
Because the case received national attention, Ross said, he had the best possible experience in foster care. He first went to live with an elderly couple in rural Missouri, where people invested in him for the first time. He received tutors and mentors, got a bike, went to sleepovers, never worried about food and saw what Christmas is supposed to be like.
He was then adopted by the Ross family, who helped prepare him for college. He wanted to study acting but ended up in social work instead, combining professional skills with his personal experience.
"I found that as I started talking, everything came up," Ross said. "Everything. All of the hurt, all of the fear, all of the disappointment that I had up until that point."
With FosterAdopt Connect, Ross developed a program to work with young adults as they age out of foster care.
"I am absolutely furious to know that there are kids in this world who, at 18, don't have a family," Ross said. "That there are people who as young adults are making themselves work doubles on holidays so they don't have to face the fact that they're alone. I hate that.
"I hate that my brothers died so that I could be able to have a family to go to on Christmas, and that there are kids in similar situations who, because of a lack of media exposure, are able to just go through the system with no one."
His message resonated with the leaders of child advocacy groups who expressed renewed interest in collaborating to help kids and families.
Donna Rozell, of Cornerstones of Care, said listening to Ross "is a reminder of why I do the work that I do, and why I try to do it better."
Gail Cozadd, of the Kansas Children's Service League, said the only way to improve the system is to work together.
"Child welfare is a complex system," Cozadd said, "and it is a system that's fraught with challenges, whether it's the childhood trauma, whether it's foster parents who have good intentions — they always have good intentions — but don't understand the complexity, or if it's staff who are just out of school but haven't had the life experience, let alone the work experience."
Bass will never get out of prison. She was sentenced to seven consecutive life sentences, plus 32 years. Ross said he saw her again when he was 28 and now visits with her regularly.
"It's still really sad," Ross said. "There's still that 10-year-old part of me every time we talk that's like, 'This isn't your fault.' And then there's the educated part of me that's like, 'You are so crazy that I really think you probably need to stay here.' "
Sherman Smith is a reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal. He’s on Twitter at @sherman_news.