It was a child’s Disney blanket that best told the story of a 9-year-old girl who had been banished to a cold basement in Blue Summit, an assistant prosecutor said Wednesday.
Even though the blanket was not long enough to cover the girl, she used it to warm herself for several months while sleeping on the cold basement floor. Not allowed to use the bathroom in the home, she used the blanket to shield herself while relieving herself outside. And, ultimately, she used the blanket to clean herself.
After hearing 90 minutes of sometimes contentious testimony, Jackson County Circuit Judge Kenneth R. Garrett III sentenced the girl’s father, Timothy A. Phillips, to seven years in prison.
Philllips, 31, had pleaded guilty in April to endangering the welfare of a child.
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His girlfriend, Lacey A. Chaney, 28, who pleaded guilty in January to the same charge, received an identical prison term earlier this year.
The girl told authorities that she had been locked in the basement as punishment for a school suspension. She also had been denied use of the bathroom after being blamed for giving Chaney a rash, she said, forcing her to relieve herself outside for several weeks.
The girl had made her way outside by using an ill-fitting basement door.
Authorities learned of the girl in May 2013 after she was sent to the nurse’s office at Korte Elementary School in western Independence because she smelled strongly of urine. The girl told the nurse that her “private parts” hurt and the nurse noted redness and irritation in the girl’s vaginal area.
The nurse alerted authorities, who went to the couple’s home in the 1900 block of Hazel Avenue in Blue Summit, an unincorporated area between east Kansas City and western Independence.
Authorities found the home’s main floor to be well kept, but noted that a door leading to the basement and secured by a lock and chain also had been outfitted with an alarm. The door led to an unfinished basement, lit by a single bulb, where investigators found a deflated air mattress on the floor.
The 90-minute sentencing hearing at the Jackson County Courthouse Annex in Independence sometimes grew contentious as Assistant Prosecutor Erika Lawler described the treatment endured by the girl. Phillips, meanwhile, maintained he was doing his best in a situation that had grown out of his control.
“This is the case of a targeted child,” Lawler said. A boy who lived upstairs had his own room, and there were two other bedrooms that the girl could have used, she said.
One stood empty, she said, while tattoo equipment filled the other.
Lawler described how Phillips’ and Chaney’s treatment of the girl grew visible to neighbors. The neighbors described to investigators one instance when the girl had followed Phillips and Chaney outside, asking where they were going.
“They said, ‘Disneyland, go back inside,’” Lawler said.
Phillips denied knowing many of his neighbors. But it was the Disney character on the girl’s blanket — Tinker Bell — that proved the most evocative piece of evidence in the case, Lawler said.
“That Tinker Bell blanket was the one source of comfort, warmth and basic hygiene” for the girl, Lawler said.
The smell of that blanket remained vivid to investigators when they examined it later, Lawler said.
The urine smell is also what teachers at Korte elementary began to recognize the girl for, said Penny Cole, a detective for the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office.
The girl also became known for wearing the same clothes over consecutive days, even as they grew dirtier and more unkempt.
Phillips said the girl’s dirty clothing was the result of several factors. His washer and dryer did not operate, and a pile of her soiled laundry often grew near the home’s basement door.
“I can’t take clothes like that to a public laundromat,” he said.
As a result, the dirty clothes often piled up.
“We were getting ready to buy her some new clothes,” he added.
Lawler projected 30 photographs of the home. They included images of the unfinished basement and the deflated air mattress that served as the girl’s bed. Another photo depicted a sheet of paper on which the girl had written, “I will take pride in what I look like,” as well as a second sheet with the sentence, “I will clean myself,” written perhaps 20 times.
Phillips said he had a heart condition and feared that an infection would compound it. His daughter long had suffered from incontinence issues but often resisted cleaning herself, he said.
Phillips’ lawyer, Nate Anderson, said his client was remorseful, adding that Phillips “has admitted that he made serious mistakes and has taken responsibility for them.”
Phillips, meanwhile, maintained that he and Chaney often had sought assistance from children’s welfare agencies, but without success.
Lawler, however, challenged the quality of Phillips’ contrition, citing statements of bravado he made during a telephone call to a detention center inmate, insisting that he would harangue the judge and the media at his sentencing hearing if he received a seven-year sentence.
“That is not somebody showing remorse,” Lawler said. “He has taken no responsibility for what he has done to his daughter.” She also maintained that Phillips and Chaney had sought to disguise the girl’s plight during a visit to the home by child welfare representatives.
“You never volunteered that she was living in the basement?” Lawler asked.
“No, ma’am, I didn’t,” Phillips said.
The girl since has been placed in foster care, Lawler said.
Garrett, in issuing his sentence, said that “taking care of a child with special needs is difficult,” but he added that Phillips’ actions “have damaged” his daughter.