Failure to protect

State releases records in death of 4-year-old boy in Holt, Mo.

Updated: 2014-01-10T22:22:21Z

By JUDY L. THOMAS and LAURA BAUER

The Kansas City Star

Five days after state workers closed their child abuse and neglect case and declared Lucas Barnes Webb safe in his home with “sufficient parenting,” his stepmom called 911.

Lucas wasn’t breathing — his face and back covered in bruises, a massive knot on the back of his head, his stomach distended. When emergency crews showed up at the home in Holt, Mo., that day last fall, Oct. 15, Melissa and Justin Webb were on the front porch trying to revive Lucas.

About an hour later, the 4-year-old died at Liberty Hospital of blunt force trauma to his abdomen. Authorities soon arrested and later charged his father and stepmother, whom child welfare workers had investigated multiple times in the previous three years.

After months of battling the Missouri Department of Social Services for Lucas’ file, The Kansas City Star received his documents on Monday. The nearly 400 pages reveal gruesome details of the boy’s final months, including how Lucas himself had cried out for help weeks before his death.

Only the system didn’t save him.

“I’m sick to my stomach,” said Brooke Barnes, who lost custody of her son when he was 3. “Nobody helped my baby for a year. They let Lucas slip through the cracks.”

Department spokeswoman Rebecca Woelfel said Monday evening that the agency had reviewed Lucas’ case and determined that staff members violated agency policy.

Though she did not elaborate, Woelfel said two employees are no longer working for the agency.

“The death of any child is a tragedy and the Department of Social Services deeply regrets the death of Lucas Barnes,” Woelfel wrote in an email.

For months, agency officials had refused to comment about recent child tragedies, including Lucas’ death. Department Director Alan Freeman, whose resignation was announced Monday, has declined to return calls and emails about the issue.

In late August, the blond-haired boy who liked trains and dinosaurs told someone — court documents don’t specify whom — that his stomach hurt after his stepmom kicked him there when she was mad.

Yet, after that disclosure and more, caseworkers did not remove him from the home and ruled as unsubstantiated multiple reports of possible abuse and neglect, meaning the worker found there wasn’t enough evidence to confirm the reports.

Melissa Webb, 33, and Justin Webb, 34, have been charged in Clinton County with second-degree murder and felony child abuse in the boy’s death.

“She is denying all the allegations,” said Melissa Webb’s attorney, Nate Anderson. Justin Webb’s attorney did not respond to requests for comment.

Anderson said recently that he did not know whether any calls had been made to the hotline to report that Lucas was being abused.

“We are still reviewing all of the discovery that we’ve received,” he said. “I would assume that if there were anything to it, that it would have been substantiated, but then of course that would depend on each individual office and if people were doing their jobs properly or not.”

He added, however, “In custody battles, those things are fairly common where people will call and try to report the other person.”

For the first three years of his life, Lucas lived mostly with Brooke Barnes.

When he was about 18 months old, Barnes said, she began letting her son occasionally visit his father. Soon after those visits started, Barnes made her first hotline call to the Department of Social Services when, she said, Lucas came home with bruises. Others also made hotline calls against various adults.

According to the records The Star received Monday, at least five calls were made to the state hotline from September 2009 to September 2012 alleging everything from poor hygiene and extreme hunger to possible physical abuse that included welts, bruises and allegations that the young boy was struck with a switch and sticks.

The most tragic call came in September 2012, five weeks before Lucas’ death. According to the records, information from the call included observations from several days. Portions of some sentences were redacted by the department.

On Aug. 23: “Lucas appeared much thinner...lethargic, moving like he was frail. He has to get drinks twice a day. He was tired...and wanted to put his head down. He doesn’t play...he just sits.”

On Aug. 24: Lucas said he sometimes doesn’t feel good. “When asked what hurts when he feels bad, Lucas sd (said) his stomach hurts when (his stepmom) kicked him in the stomach w/a foot.” He told the adult that his stepmom was mad when she did it.

The caller continued. On Aug. 31: “Lucas was lethargic. He wouldn’t play...he cried...he refused to attempt to go to the bathroom.”

And then, on Sept. 7, the day of the hotline call: “Today the child is very gaunt. Grossly thin,” according to the caller. “His coloring is gray, like he’s not well/sick.” The caller also noted that Lucas said his dad was mean and made him eat pencils. When asked what he liked to eat at home, the caller said, “He wanted more pizza one time. Dad got mad and made him go run outside in the dark and wouldn’t let him come in.”

The agency considered it an emergency and sent a child welfare investigator along with a sheriff’s deputy. At 5 p.m., they arrived at the home. The caseworker noted there were shelves stocked full of food, including cheese, canned soups, pudding packs, cereal and crackers.

When interviewed, Justin Webb, who had gained full custody of Lucas several months earlier, gave ready explanations for the bruises.

He said his son was clumsy and had a medical condition that caused him to bruise easily. He also said, according to the records, that Lucas was “delayed” and tended to agree with anything asked him by an adult.

When the deputy and caseworker interviewed Lucas outside, he, too, gave excuses for the bruises — one of which was still present and discolored, spanning his left cheekbone. He said he was helping his dad work on his boat over the weekend when he hurt himself. Lucas told them he felt safe at home.

According to the report: “A Safety Assessment was done listing the child as safe.”

On Sept. 10, the caseworker and the hotline caller spoke further about Lucas. The caller said the main focus of concern was a lack of food. Lucas would beg for snacks and food, the caller said.

“On Friday, his little belly was distended and his ribs pushed out due to the distention,” the worker wrote. “(The caller) described it as heartbreaking and that Lucas looked like pictures you see of children in Ethiopia.”

One month later: “Risk level is low for current parents,” the conclusion summary said. “Report closed...”

Five days later, Lucas died. Authorities said he had been kicked or struck in the abdomen 12 to 24 hours before his death. They also revealed that several ribs had been fractured and separated for six to eight weeks before the fatal injuries.

The boy’s body was cremated.

Shortly after his death, a woman from the Holt area created a Facebook page for Lucas called “R.I.P. Lucas Webb. We Love You.” Friends post pictures and messages to his family, and strangers express their shock and anger at the violent loss of such a young boy.

It’s also where Barnes frequently goes to talk to her son, sometimes just to say hi, other times to update him on the case or to ask him to watch over her. She admits her life has been a struggle at times and she wasn’t always there for her son when she wanted to be.

“Hi mommy’s little sweet heart,” she wrote on April 19. “Mommy has been missing u a lot lately as the weather changes i think about how much u loved playing outside i remember u loved your bike and digging in the yard i just hope u know just how much mommy loves and misses u come visit in my dreams i could really use it i love and miss u my baby love mommy.”

Others chimed in with updates after a recent court hearing for Melissa Webb.

“Hoping today goes well! Stand by your mommy and hold her hand. Justice is coming sweet boy. Lots of hugs!!”

Later that day, another wrote: “Lucas a lot of people didn’t know you but your story has touched so many people’s hearts!!! May you rest in peace little man!”

After Lucas died, Barnes bought ceramic piggy banks in the shapes of airplanes and trains. She and her best friend, Julie Grisham — who was at the hospital during Lucas’ birth — decorated them in bright sparkly colors and then put his ashes in them.

Lucas would have loved them, Barnes said. He loved life and making people laugh.

“He’d wake up and say, ‘My sun is up! My sun is up! It’s time for me to play,’” Barnes said.

“He was a happy baby. Always happy. He was a fine one.”

As prosecutors prepare their case against Lucas’ dad and stepmother, other family members and close friends remember a child who loved Thomas the Tank Engine and digging holes in the dirt.

“He was something else,” Grisham said. “Lucas was full of life, very energetic. He had no fear...

“Nothing will bring him back. I just want to know why.”

To reach Judy L. Thomas, call 816-234-4334 or send email to jthomas@kcstar.com. To reach Laura Bauer, call 816-234-4944 or send email to lbauer@kcstar.com.

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