For more than 30 years, Lisa Mizell has worked with neglected and abused children and overseen case after horrible case.
But she admits this one, Adrian Jones’ torturous death in his Kansas City, Kan., home, haunts her.
“I can’t get it out of my head — I can’t,” said Mizell, the chief executive officer at the Child Protection Center in Kansas City. “This child begged for help and didn’t get it.”
Experts in child welfare have combed details from the young boy’s case in records obtained a week ago by The Star from the Missouri Department of Social Services.
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They read that he told a Missouri Children’s Division worker and police officer in July 2013 that his father and stepmother had kicked and punched and hurt him, yet he was allowed to stay with Michael and Heather Jones until his starvation death two years later.
These experts questioned certain decisions made in the case and identified holes in Missouri’s system that allowed Adrian to fall through the cracks. Among those perceived missteps:
▪ A case worker investigating a hotline call in March 2013 interviewed Adrian with his stepmother sitting nearby.
▪ After Adrian told a child welfare worker and police officer in July 2013 that his father and stepmother hurt him, Michael Jones was allowed to help transport the young boy to a doctor for examination and then, it appears, to a forensic interview. After being with his father, Adrian took back what he said about Michael Jones hurting him.
▪ Clinton County’s juvenile office chose not to remove the child from the home, which Children’s Division workers thought was needed. Instead, the juvenile office recommended services for the family.
“This was a failure of the system and we have to do better,” Mizell said.
What Adrian needed was for someone along the way to fight for him, said Lori Ross, a longtime child advocate in the Kansas City area and CEO of FosterAdopt Connect.
“Someone would have just had to say, ‘This child is asking for help. He’s 5 years old, he’s not making it up,’ ” Ross said.
Officials with the Missouri Department of Social Services did not respond to several questions. A spokeswoman said the department reviewed Adrian’s case but did not elaborate on what the review found.
Adrian’s records in Kansas, where his family also reportedly had extensive contact with the Department for Children and Families, have not been released.
Experts say it’s not fair to put sole blame on Missouri’s Children’s Division when a child dies. The agency is only one part of a team that works with and for the state’s most vulnerable children. And in Missouri, the division doesn’t have the authority to remove a child from a home and can’t force a family to take help.
“Children’s Division doesn’t have any teeth,” said Emily van Schenkhof, deputy director of Missouri KidsFirst. “We’re having social workers beg and plead with families to even participate in the investigation. Children’s Division workers, they don’t have the tools they need at all to do what they need to do to investigate these high-level cases. This has to change.”
In Adrian’s case, good work also was done, Ross and van Schenkhof agree. The hotline call alleging Heather Jones “beat the living daylights out of her children for no reason” was thoroughly investigated and a claim of neglect substantiated.
Also, when the family stopped cooperating with services because they said their primary residency was in Kansas, a Missouri worker called that agency to alert workers about the Joneses.
“I think what happened with Adrian is a tragedy on multiple levels,” said Marcia Hazelhorst, executive director of the Missouri Juvenile Justice Association. “There were a lot of eyes and hands on Adrian and this still happened.”
First call for help in Missouri
The hotline caller said Adrian was being neglected and that the Jones home was filthy with muddy floors, food everywhere and dead animals in the garage.
“The 4-year-old was standing in a corner as punishment,” the caller said in March 2013. “The child stood there for over an hour. Family had forgotten about him.”
The caller also said that Adrian had an outside lock on his bedroom door and that the “stepmom said he is a problem child and has to be isolated. Stepmom said he has tried to start fires before.”
The day after the call, a case worker went to the family’s Plattsburg, Mo., home. And after speaking briefly with Heather and Mike Jones, the worker spoke with several children, including Adrian.
“I asked them if they ever get into trouble and they all responded yes,” the worker wrote in her report. “I asked them what happens when they get into trouble and they said they go to (their) room.”
Adrian told the worker that he “gets locked in his room.”
His stepmom was in the room and heard his response. According to the report, “Heather interjected and said that he has never been locked in his room.” Adrian responded, “yes, that his dad did.”
Ross, of FosterAdopt Connect, said parents shouldn’t be in the room when children are interviewed.
“When the investigator interviews the child in front of the potential perpetrator, the child is much less likely to tell the worker what is really happening in the home,” Ross said. “If you are a little kid who is frequently being beaten, and you know that if you say that your mom beats you, in front of your mom, then when the lady asking the questions leaves your house, you are going to get it twice as bad.”
The neglect allegation was unsubstantiated because of a lack of evidence.
“I went through the house and did not see any locks on the door,” the worker wrote. “Heather and Mike are the caretakers of Adrian and they deny ever locking him in his room. Adrian denies this happening as well.”
It is unknown why the worker wrote that Adrian denied he was locked in his room. He actually said, according to the worker’s notes, that his father did lock him in his room.
‘Probably been coached’
Four months later, on July 8, 2013, another hotline call came in. This time, the caller alleged abuse, that “the mom beats the living daylights out of the kids for no reason.”
Adrian wasn’t there when the investigator went to the home. He wasn’t interviewed until nine days later.
But at that first visit, a police officer who went with the case worker said that Michael Jones appeared to be “bad news.” The officer pointed out that “there is something not quite right” and that the father had an arsenal of guns.
The worker wrote in the report: NEVER GO OUT TO THE HOME WITHOUT LE!!!!!!!!!!! (law enforcement).
When Adrian was interviewed nine days later, there were no signs of abuse, records show. But experts insist that bruises can heal in that time and question why the follow up with the young boy took so long.
In his bedroom, decorated with John Deere tractors, Adrian sat on the bed with the worker. An officer was there as well. Heather and Michael Jones were out of town on business and the children were left with a great uncle, Willie Flowers.
“My daddy kicks me in the garage and when daddy kick me, it hurts me,” Adrian told the investigators. “Mommy and Daddy always lock me in my room. I have to sleep without a pillow and blanket. … I sometimes don’t eat dinner and my daddy brings me food in my bedroom.”
The worker asked Adrian, “Do Mommy and Daddy kiss you?”
“No,” he told her.
Heather and Michael Jones arrived home shortly before the interview ended.
“Adrian seemed to revamp everything he stated about his parents being mean and about the abuse,” the worker wrote. “I heard his parents enter the residence as we were sitting in his (Adrian’s) bedroom.”
The worker spoke with Heather about what Adrian had disclosed. Heather said that her stepson had been hospitalized twice and had “threatened to kill her and harm his sisters.”
The next day, another worker and officer followed up at the Jones home. The worker shared the Children’s Division’s concerns about what Adrian said about being abused and neglected. Adrian would need to be examined by a medical professional and then have a forensic interview as soon as possible.
According to the records, by late that afternoon — July 18, 2013 — “Mr. Willie Flowers and Mike Jones took Adrian to … to have a physical examination completed.”
“Per Willie, the examination went very well and the concerns were not substantiated. After the exam, the family arrived at the CAC (Child Advocacy Center) in St. Joseph,” the report said.
A St. Joseph police officer conducted the forensic interview. “… Adrian without question stated, ‘my dad doesn’t hurt me.’ ”
Mizell, of the Child Protection Center in Kansas City, said that raises a red flag: “It tells me that he’s probably been coached.”
The young boy said that his stepmom would pull his ear and arm and he didn’t like that. He also said that he gets locked in his room because he takes snacks out of the kitchen.
“Adrian did talk excessively about food and being hungry,” according to the report. “Regarding any further abuse, Adrian did not disclose.”
Joyce Estes retired as director of the St Joseph Child Advocacy Center in February. She said it’s concerning how pieces of Adrian’s case played out.
“This child had disclosed quite bit of abuse and should not be alone with the perpetrator in a car,” Estes told The Star. “A lot of time just the presence of that person, if they drive them to the interview or drive them here or there, it will be very unlikely that they will talk.
“They should have made some sort of arrangement to put him in protective custody and transport the child,” she said. “That should have been done.”
Who makes the decision?
Still, Adrian had said enough to concern workers at the Children’s Division. More than one person at the agency worried about his safety at home.
The manager of Adrian’s case asked a worker to “make contact to the juvenile office to see what their thoughts were about taking protective custody.”
Because the Children’s Division does not have the authority to remove children, the worker had to consult with the juvenile office, which does have that power. But in this case, the juvenile officer didn’t believe the facts warranted a removal.
“… The juvenile office would prefer for CD to develop a safety plan with the family and attempt IIS (Intensive In-home Services) before taking protective custody,” the records said.
One key question, said Hazelhorst of Missouri’s Juvenile Justice Association, is if the division ever requested in writing that Adrian be removed from his home. The records suggest that the worker shared the division’s concerns verbally.
“If the Children’s Division felt Adrian should be removed from the home, why did they have to call and ask the juvenile officer’s thoughts?” Hazelhorst said. “Why didn’t they formally request the removal?”
The Star asked the DSS spokeswoman whether a formal written request was made. She did not respond.
Since February, Children’s Division offices across Missouri have been asked to fill out a universal referral form when requesting a child be removed. That change came out of a child welfare subcommittee created when juvenile officers across the state worked on a new set of standards that go into effect in July.
“When you’re talking on the phone I don’t think everything is communicated,” she said. “Is all the information and evidence provided?”
The family only participated in those intensive in-home services for less than two weeks and then didn’t cooperate because the parents said they primarily lived in Kansas.
It isn’t known what services, if any, the family received in Kansas. Two years later, living in a home in Kansas City, Kan., surveillance photos and video clips show that Adrian was being tortured and starved. Authorities believe Adrian died in late September 2015, though investigators didn’t find his remains in a barn where pigs were held until late November.
“We could have saved his life if the juvenile office had taken custody of him,” said van Schenkhof, of Missouri KidsFirst. “That’s the worst part. And I’ve seen so many kids die this way.”
Micha L. Dixon, an attorney for the Juvenile Office in the 43rd Judicial Circuit that includes Clinton County, said state law prohibited her from releasing any records or information regarding a specific case.
Generally, she said, “we work cooperatively as a team to balance promoting the safety of children and protecting the rights of families.”
Experts say the current, dual approach system provides checks and balances for the Children’s Division. Yet problems have come with it.
“I never lived in a state where the authority to remove a child was solely up to the juvenile office,” Mizell said. “… It only works when they are working together and they trust each other enough when they say they think this is happening and you know they are telling you the truth.”
Adrian’s maternal grandmother, Judy Conway, didn’t know until Missouri released its records that her grandson had tried to ask for help. Hearing that, and reading the words he said, only furthers her pain.
Conway, who has created a Gofundme page to raise money for Adrian’s memorial service and his siblings’ college education, hopes people, now, hear his words.
“I think the whole system needs to be overhauled and something has to happen to protect these children,” Judy Conway said. “Adrian has become a voice for all of us.”
Help for sisters
A Gofundme page has been set up in Adrian’s name. His maternal grandmother and his oldest sister set up the fund to help pay for his memorial service and create a college fund for his two sisters who are still in state custody. The two girls — one older than Adrian and one younger — lived in the same home where their brother was tortured and abused. According to the Gofundme page, the two sisters suffered horrific mental abuse and are slowly healing through therapy. You can find the page here.