Secrecy shrouds the case of girl found in closet

Three months after authorities found a little girl locked in a Kansas City closet, dehydrated and malnourished, unanswered questions still haunt family members, advocates and some lawmakers.

How, for five years, did the girl known as LP basically disappear after the system had recognized her to be a child in danger? Did child welfare workers follow up after she and her little sister were reunited with their mother in March 2007?

A month later, LP stopped going to school. Did caseworkers know that?

And did they ever, in the next five years, when she was kept inside her mother’s apartment and often locked in a closet, visit that home again?

The people who have that information — and under state law could provide it — have refused to answer any questions. For three months, officials with the Missouri Department of Social Services have remained silent, declining even to say they have knowledge of LP’s case.

First, the agency spokeswoman said state law prohibited the department from saying anything. Then she said officials wouldn’t release information because of the ongoing court case against Jacole Prince, LP’s mom.

“Once the criminal justice matter is resolved, the Department will be in a position to reevaluate your request,” DSS spokeswoman Rebecca Woelfel said last week in an email to The Star. “It is also important to note that the Department’s deference to the criminal justice process at this time is consistent with the local prosecutor’s wishes regarding your request.”

Advocates and some state lawmakers say it is crucial to know what went wrong in this case so another child doesn’t fall through the same cracks LP did. They insist that a system set up to protect the state’s most vulnerable children must be held accountable when something goes wrong.

One state senator has requested information about LP’s case and so far has been denied. Though he has received information in the past from the Office of Child Advocate on other child welfare cases, the office told him that in LP’s case he couldn’t have anything.

“I want to know how we got to this point,” said Sen. Dan Brown, a Rolla Republican. “Did the Department of Social Services follow up? Were there more hotline calls? The basic questions are what I want to know.”

A new joint committee on child abuse and neglect, made up of seven state senators and seven House members, will analyze state programs and systems designed to protect children. The goal of the committee, formed before LP was found, is to improve the child welfare system in Missouri.

LP’s case is expected to come up in that committee during the next session, which begins in January.

Sen. Jolie Justus, a Kansas City Democrat who is on that committee, is concerned that a number of high-profile child abuse and neglect cases could be a sign of a broken system. And in LP’s case, more must be known.

“Someone along the line failed this little girl, and I want to know who it is,” Justus said. “I want the facts so it won’t happen again.”

A need for ‘sunshine’

LP came to the attention of the state’s child welfare system in February 2006. That’s when, according to Family Court records, Jacole Prince admitted that she intentionally withheld food from LP so the girl wouldn’t go to the bathroom too often. The state took custody 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.

On June 22, authorities following up on a hotline call found LP locked in a dark and tiny closet amid her own urine and feces. At 10 years old, she weighed 32 pounds. Authorities believe she had been kept hidden inside her mom’s Kansas City apartment.

Her mother reportedly kept a bowl and a bottle behind a couch, where the girl would sometimes eat. LP told police that some days she went without food and was made to sleep in the closet, where she could be locked for days at a time.

She told the officers she didn’t want to go home again.

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.

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 a DSS caseworker and police followed up on a hotline call and found LP, 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,” 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.”

When pressed last week, Woelfel indicated that the local prosecutor didn’t want the information released.

Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker said her office subpoenaed LP’s DSS records shortly after the girl was found in June. Three months later, her office has yet to receive them, she said, but “I know they’re working on it.”

On Wednesday, the governor’s office called to ask her opinion on whether information should be released to the media, she said.

“I told them I felt this would not be conducive to the criminal case,” she said. “I don’t have the records myself. I would like to see what’s in them first.”

In other child abuse and neglect proceedings, DSS has released information before a criminal case goes to trial.

In late 2010, after prosecutors in southwest Missouri charged a mother with killing her child, the Springfield News-Leader requested the DSS case file. According to an April 2011 story, the newspaper received more than 300 pages that detailed the agency’s involvement in the case. The mother, Tatianna Light, has not yet gone to trial.

A decade ago, after Springfield toddler Dominic James died from injuries suffered in foster care, the News-Leader sued to obtain his DSS file. The county prosecutor at the time expressed concerns early on that the state hadn’t done enough to protect James.

James’ death in August 2002 sparked an overhaul of Missouri’s child welfare system. Legislators eventually passed the Dominic James Memorial Foster Care Reform Act, which allowed for some Family Court records to be open. That law is what permitted information on LP, and her involvement with DSS five years ago, to be released through family court.

One of the major goals of the legislation was to make the system more open to create more accountability, said former House member Mark Wright, a Springfield Republican who was a sponsor of the legislation.

“There’s a saying, ‘Sunshine is the best disinfectant,’ ” said Wright. “The more transparency in government, the better the government’s response to citizens it’s supposed to serve.”

Neither DSS nor Gov. Jay Nixon’s office has addressed why in some recent cases in which a child has died, the agency has released records and information before the criminal case was resolved.

Sam Murphey, a spokesman with Nixon’s office, was asked whether DSS did an internal investigation after LP was found to determine whether all agency policies and procedures were followed.

The governor’s office “has no comment at this point,” he said Friday.

In the James case, Wright and others fought to hold the state accountable. He said he had hoped after the lessons learned a decade ago that state leaders would be more open now.

“At the end of the day, our government officials need to do the legal and ethical thing, and that’s to release information,” said Wright, who left office because of term limits in January 2007. “If they are hiding things, not giving out information, there’s likely something they are trying to cover up.”

Balancing privacy, transparency

The foundation of the child welfare system is privacy. Children in the system have a right to know that they and their information are protected.

“When the courts entrust the legal custody of these children to the Department of Social Services, the Department’s paramount responsibility is to promote and protect the safety and best interests of these vulnerable children,” wrote Scotty L. Allen, chief counsel representing DSS, in a response to The Star’s request for information in LP’s case.

Indeed, when a child is taken into custody, the state doesn’t say where that child is or who is providing care. Though police often say the child is in state custody, agency officials often don’t even confirm that.

Rules on the release of information are spelled out in state law.

“To protect the rights of the family and the child named in the report as a victim, the children’s division shall establish guidelines which will ensure that any disclosure of information concerning the abuse and neglect involving that child is made only to persons or agencies that have a right to such information,” the law reads.

Families and advocates understand that.

But in cases where a tragedy occurs, advocates say it’s important to investigate whether there was a mistake or misstep, so that the system can be improved for the next child.

“I think privacy of victims is an important consideration,” said Emily van Schenkhof, deputy director of the nonprofit Missouri KidsFirst, a statewide child welfare advocacy agency. “But we have to weigh that with public interest of what happened so more children aren’t hurt.”

And while DSS has shared information and released records after a child dies, many wonder why the agency typically does not release records when a child is found near death, as Missouri law allows.

“Does a child have to die before the system is fixed?” van Schenkhof said.

In late July, during a Family Court hearing regarding the parental rights of Prince and Marcus Benson, who is the father of Prince’s two younger daughters, the guardian ad litem’s office asked the judge to close the hearings and court records to the public. Prince’s attorney said LP’s mom would like them to be confidential as well. The attorney for the juvenile officer opposed the move, saying the hearings and records should remain open.

The judge closed the Family Court proceedings. Jermak Prince, Jacole’s brother and LP’s uncle, and another family member and friend had to leave the courtroom.

Jermak Prince said he didn’t understand why the proceedings and filings couldn’t remain open. He has his own questions, including why the state didn’t evaluate his sister for a mental illness.

“The only person they are protecting now is themselves,” Jermak said on that July day. “She’s my sister and I don’t know what the hell is going on.”

LP’s case is also unusual in that so much of her story and all the allegations of how she was forced to live are already known. Kansas City area residents and people across the country have been so touched by her story that hundreds sent her cards and presents for her 11th birthday Aug. 1.

Residents who live in the Theron B. Watkins Homes complex, who say they didn’t know LP was hidden inside apartment No. 11 for years, threw a birthday party in her honor. They wanted her to know that she matters and people care.

Many continue to send donations in her name to the Local Investment Commission. Already, more than $6,500 has been collected for the little girl.

Now, advocates say, the goal must be to examine how or whether she fell through any cracks in the state system.

“Victims always say they want other children to not have to go through what they went through,” van Schenkhof said. “Most victims want to contribute to the greater good. That helps them heal.”