Protecting at-risk children is not an exact science. But files reluctantly released by the state of Missouri reveal mistakes that contributed to a Kansas City girl spending five years wasting away, deprived of food, sunlight, learning and love.
Teachers and administrators at Woodland Elementary School in the Kansas City Public Schools knew in the spring of 2007 that the child known now to the public as LP had recently been involved with Missouri’s child welfare system because her mother, Jacole Prince, had been suspected of neglect. But when the girl stopped showing up for kindergarten, the school apparently did little to locate her.
Records released by the Missouri Department of Social Services contain no indication that anyone called LP’s mother or visited her home. Given the family’s history, a call to the state child abuse hotline would likely have resulted in a search for LP and possibly a return to state supervision.
No documentation shows that call was made, and LP dropped out of sight for five years. Only last June did someone make the hotline call, reporting that a little girl was confined in an apartment at Theron B. Watkins Homes, scared and bruised. Police and a social worker found LP locked in a dark, filthy closet. She had spent much of her childhood there. At 10 years old, she weighed 32 pounds.
Rapid administrative turnover in the Kansas City Public Schools makes it difficult to pinpoint who dropped the ball, and why. Stephen Green, the current superintendent, says protocol now calls for school personnel to make a phone call within three days of a child’s unreported absence from classes. If that proves unsatisfactory, a home visit is required.
Schools are an abused or neglected child’s first — and sometimes last —line of defense. Teachers know when a student is hungry, or shows signs of abuse, or when they vanish without explanation. They are mandatory reporters of abuse and neglect, and that duty should extend to notifying authorities when a child can’t be found.
Murkier questions include whether Missouri’s child protection network should have discovered LP’s plight. Authorities had been concerned enough about Prince’s parenting to remove her two daughters from her custody for a time.
Caseworkers worked with Prince, and she regained supervision. A judge ended Family Court oversight of the family in March 2007. Prince began almost immediately to isolate her oldest child, LP.
A guardian ad litem, who represented the interest of LP in court, had recommended a longer period of court supervision. It’s unfortunate, but not surprising, that didn’t happen. Jackson County Family Court and Missouri’s Children’s Division handle too many cases with too few resources. In a better-staffed and better-funded system, more extensive follow up may have protected LP.
The child is now with adults who are doing what they can to make up for her lost years. Her mother is in jail, charged with child abuse, child endangerment and assault.
LP’s story is a stark reminder of the need for vigilant families, schools, communities and child protection systems.
It also illustrates why the state must be more transparent about releasing information in child abuse cases. The Star and a Springfield newspaper have had to make repeated requests for the files on LP and several other children.
LP’s file, finally released, tells a story of a tragedy that was perhaps preventable.
Copyright The Kansas City Star. Reprinted with permission.