After 10 months of refusing to release records in the case of a little girl found locked in a closet, The Missouri Department of Social Services on Thursday sent a compact disc of documents to The Kansas City Star.
By LAURA BAUER and JUDY L. THOMAS
The Kansas City Star
The hundreds of pages of documents include medical information from Children’s Mercy Hospital, where the little girl known as LP was first treated after being rescued from the closet in Kansas City in late June. She was hospitalized for a week and then taken back days later for swollen feet, a distended abdomen and trouble with nausea after eating.
When a state caseworker and police officer found her in the closet, amid her own urine and feces, the then-10-year-old weighed just 32 pounds and was severely dehydrated. She told authorities that some days she wasn’t allowed to eat. Other times, she had to eat in the closet or behind a couch.
In the documents, doctors made note of her foster mom’s observation that she has wanted to “eat as much as she can get her hands on.”
LP first came to the attention of the state’s child welfare system in February 2006. That’s when, according to Family Court records, her mother, Jacole Prince, admitted that she intentionally withheld food from LP so the girl wouldn’t go to the bathroom too often. The state took supervision of LP and a younger sister.
About 13 months later, after Prince reportedly had worked through a checklist of requirements set by the state, she got her two daughters back.
But after a month, LP stopped going to school and disappeared from sight. Neighbors of Prince have said they didn’t even know LP lived in the apartment, although they often saw Prince with her two younger daughters, who were well kept and had nice clothes and toys.
Five years passed.
Prince, 29, has been charged with three felony counts of child abuse, child endangerment and assault in the first degree. She has pleaded not guilty and sits in jail awaiting trial. Her next hearing is scheduled for May 10.
According to state law, when there’s a child fatality, or near-fatality, the director of the Missouri Department of Social Services may release information about the case, including whether department workers made follow-up visits and for how long the visits continued. The law leaves the decision to release such information to the director’s sole discretion.
In the weeks after LP was first found, an agency spokeswoman said state law prohibited them from even acknowledging they had a case.
“State law prohibits release of information specific to a case or individual, so we could not confirm nor deny involvement in the case,” Rebecca Woelfel, the DSS spokeswoman, said in late June.
When reminded by The Star that state law says information may be released when a child was near death, the spokeswoman sent an email in July stating: “This matter is now in the hands of the criminal justice system. We will reserve any further comments until the conclusion of that process.”
Here’s a chronology of The Star’s pursuit of the records:
July 2012: The Star requests records from the Missouri Department of Social Services in the LP case.
October 2012: After months of discussions between attorneys for The Star and DSS, the agency insists it will not release records and adds that the decision is “consistent” with the wishes of the Jackson County prosecutor.
March 17: A joint investigation by The Star and the Springfield News-Leader finds that DSS has apparently shifted its policy from one of openness to a culture of refusal. Records requested by the newspapers show that since 2009, media agencies across the state had requested information in 22 child fatalities or near fatalities. The state approved release of information in 16 cases, and kept two under consideration. But in four other cases, including the one involving LP and three that happened after hers, the DSS director refused to release anything.
April 9: Gov. Jay Nixon says he is not aware of “any significant policy changes” regarding disclosure of child welfare records and refers questions to his staff. Questions sent via emails by The Kansas City Star go unanswered.
April 11: House Speaker Tim Jones calls on Nixon to order DSS to release records in recent child tragedies or expect legislators to take action. The only way for the system to improve, and be safer for children, he says, is for the public to be able to scrutinize actions made in tragic cases.
April 18: Rep. Jay Barnes, chairman of the House Government Oversight and Accountability Committee, meets with DSS Director Alan Freeman on an unrelated matter and says his committee plans to ask another agency official about the records at a hearing the next week. Barnes reiterates the importance of releasing information after child tragedies.
April 19: Minutes before 5 p.m., DSS sends an email to The Star saying it has decided to release the records in the LP case once they are prepared. No time frame is given. Officials also don’t address The Star’s request for records involving the death of 4-year-old Lucas Barnes Webb in Holt, Mo.
April 23: A DSS attorney tells The Star it will take a month to review its request on Lucas, even though it was submitted two months earlier. Later in the day, Jones and Barnes tell DSS it has until 5 p.m. Monday to release Lucas’ records or explain their rationale for not releasing the documents.
April 29: At 5:12 p.m., DSS emails The Star to say the director has decided to release Lucas’ file once it is prepared, but no time frame is provided. A DSS spokeswoman also says the agency expects to release the LP records later in the week.
May 2: The Star receives the LP records.