Reporting abuse: A call can save a child’s life

Crystal Anderson’s friends told her not to call. Don’t get involved. None of your business, they said.

The situation next door, though, nagged at her. Something didn’t seem right with the 17-year-old neighbor boy.

When she first met him in August after she moved into the cluster of townhomes in Kansas City, North, he was outside all day, sometimes until way past dark. But in recent months she’d barely seen him.

Then one day in late January she saw him chained to his family’s basement door. The teen’s stepbrother told her the family sometimes had to restrain the teen so he wouldn’t hurt anybody.

Just to make sure the neighbor boy was OK, Anderson on Monday called Missouri’s child abuse and neglect hotline. She told of how the timid young man no longer walked the neighborhood for hours a day and said she had recently seen him chained. Police were there within an hour, she said. An ambulance followed.

Authorities and child advocates say Anderson was the boy’s savior. She did what too many people, including other neighbors in her Northland complex, have shied away from doing, not just in this alleged abuse case, but in many others.

She picked up the phone.

“That was a lifesaving call,” said Debby Howland, coordinator of the Kansas City Child Abuse Roundtable Coalition. “Too many people don’t want to get involved. But thankfully someone did. It’s as simple as a phone call.”

In Kansas City, this is the third time in eight months that a child has been found locked away by parents or guardians. Police found one little girl in a barricaded closet soaked in urine and feces, another in a filthy bedroom locked from the outside. And now there’s the frail teen found shivering in dirty clothes, handcuffed to a pole in his family’s basement with only a few thin blankets.

Though hotline calls prompted each rescue, questions linger. Why didn’t anyone call sooner? Why do too many people think keeping quiet, staying out of someone else’s business and life, is the best course?

Even a day’s delay can make a difference.

Since police found the teen last week, neighbors have revealed seeing many oddities over the past several months. One told The Star that her husband once found the teen sleeping in a patch of grass near a tree in front of his home at midnight. It was cold, so her husband gave the teen a blanket. The teen was still there the next morning.

Another neighbor said that one frigid day last year she saw the teen pounding on his family’s door, crying and begging to be let inside. The boy yelled: “I won’t mess up anymore!”

That neighbor said she almost called police, but after about 15 minutes someone let him inside.

“There were too many weird signs that someone should have said something,” said Jeanetta Issa, president and CEO of the Child Abuse Prevention Association in Independence. “We need to tell people, make them realize, that they can’t ignore the signs.”

On Monday, Anderson watched emergency crews take the boy away on a stretcher. She could see his face was pale, his cheeks sunken. He had scruffy facial hair, unusual for a teen who Anderson always thought had a childlike kindness and vulnerability. She knew him as a sweet kid who would color with her much younger children using sidewalk chalk.

She looked at him, surrounded by emergency medical workers and police, and felt relief.

“I didn’t know the extent of what was going on,” said Anderson, 24. “I’m glad I made the call now. Who knows how long they would have kept him in the basement?”

Too often the call is never made. Or it’s made late and a child is left to endure more pain and abuse.

Some don’t pick up the phone because they think that if they get involved, they’ll only make matters worse, experts say. Or they see it as a privacy issue.

Others may not trust the system or are frightened themselves, so they don’t report suspected abuse, said Caren Caty, a California psychologist and senior fellow with the American Humane Association, a national advocacy group for the protection of children.

“It’s a very scary and confusing thing to many people,” Caty said. “A person’s level of empathy and responsibility would greatly determine how they intervene.”

Over the years, Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker has seen many cases where people have had suspicions — or even knowledge — of abuse or neglect and stayed silent.

“I think it is hard for people, especially when it deals with parents,” Baker said. “Judging people’s parenting makes them reticent to complain to authorities.”

What she tries to stress is that a call to the hotline basically just begins a process and allows investigators to do their job. You don’t need hard facts or to investigate on your own to report something. Observations and suspicions can be key in saving a child, she and others said.

“A call to the hotline is simply a call to the hotline,” Baker said. “It doesn’t mean that someone is put in handcuffs at the end of the day and goes to jail.”

Added Caty: “We shouldn’t be the arbitrators of what’s in the best interest of a child. It’s just best to report it and let the professionals take it from there.”

On June 22, someone made a hotline call to the Missouri Department of Social Services about a young girl kept locked in a closet at Theron B. Watkins Homes in Kansas City. A police officer and state case worker walked through the quiet of the two-story townhome and found a closet with a crib pushed against it and the doorknobs tied together.

The 10-year-old girl weighed just 32 pounds, and her malnourished body was scarred and bruised. Her mother, Jacole Prince, is charged with three felonies and is jailed, awaiting trial.

Authorities say that the girl known as LP stopped going to school five years earlier and that her mother kept her hidden inside the apartment, refusing to let her play outside with her sisters. The closet was her bedroom, where she often slept and ate and was forced to go to the bathroom.

After LP, the Kansas City Child Abuse Roundtable Coalition knew what the theme for this year’s campaign for National Child Abuse Prevention Month had to be. “Don’t Ignore the Signs” will focus on how to recognize signs of abuse and report it, and how to prevent abuse.

Two more similar cases of alleged abuse — another little girl found in July and then the teenager last week — show the need for education, advocates say. And to remind people that hotline calls led to these three children eventually being rescued.

“We need to get the phone number out there,” said Howland, coordinator of the coalition. “You can call anonymously. People need to know that a call can save a child’s life.”

When authorities went to check on the Northland teen last week, his stepmother answered the door. She told police she would go downstairs to wake him.

Police, though, asked her to stay upstairs while they checked on the teen.

As the officers walked down the stairs, they heard a voice:

“I didn’t do anything! I didn’t do anything! I didn’t do anything!”

Officers found him curled around the pole and handcuffed to it. He later told police that he had been locked in the basement for extended periods after his father removed him from his high school, where he was a sophomore, reportedly to home-school him.

Those close to the teen worried years ago about his welfare. They were concerned because he often didn’t want to go home, would come up with reasons to stay after school and dreaded holidays when he would have to be home for long periods. He also often appeared ravenous, they said, as though he didn’t have enough to eat at home.

On at least one occasion, those indirect signs going back several years prompted someone to call the state hotline, people once close to the boy have said. It isn’t known what, if any, action resulted.

Rebecca Woelfel, a spokeswoman for the Missouri Department of Social Services, said state law prohibits the release of information specific to a case or individual.

“So I cannot confirm nor deny involvement in a case,” she said in an email.

The teen’s family had “minor contacts” with the Clay County juvenile office about two years ago over behavior issues and conflicts with his father and stepmother, said Alan Gremli, Clay County juvenile court officer.

The stepmother complained about the teen stealing from Hy-Vee. The juvenile office discovered he had lifted a package of Starburst candy from the store.

The family was referred for some services and intervention.

“They told police (last week) that they had to chain him up because they couldn’t get the help that they needed,” Gremli said Friday. “In the last few weeks, had they contacted us again, we would have tried again, but we didn’t know about this. Two years is a long time to not hear from them if it was that bad.”

This past summer, neighbors would see the teen outside first thing in the morning. And he’d still be there, walking around, as late as 11 at night.

“I didn’t realize he’d been out all day until I talked to the neighbors and they said the family would lock him out,” Anderson said. “One neighbor said that even when it was raining, she’d hear (the teen) pounding on the door. He’d be outside the whole time.”

By the end of September, neighbors hardly saw him. Anderson asked the teen’s stepbrother about his absence.

“He said he was pretty much under house arrest,” Anderson said. “He said, ‘He’s pretty much grounded for life because he attacked my mom quite frequently.’ ”

Now Anderson and other neighbors are left to imagine what he had endured since then.

Inside North Kansas City Schools, educators also think of the young man, who had attended classes there since elementary school. Some teachers are collecting signed cards to deliver to him.

“One of the things we really stress and strive for is positive relations between students and adults within our buildings,” said Paul Fregeau, the district’s assistant superintendent of student services. “This young man definitely had positive relations with numerous adults in our district who are very moved and upset with the reported conditions he was dealing with.”

The teen appeared in court late last week and said he didn’t want to go home. He wanted to stay with his new foster parents, even joking that he’d already gained weight. He said he liked that the family had made him pizza.

It isn’t known how long he’ll be in foster care. Authorities are still investigating and no charges have been filed.

Another family court hearing for the teen is scheduled for March 7, when his future will be discussed. The teen’s biological mother has talked to the juvenile office and has said she would like custody of her son.

Shelly Vasey understands the fear involved when speaking up.

Eight years ago, twin 13-year-old sisters who lived across the street from her in Wichita confided in her. They told her their brother had raped them.

They begged her not to say anything, not to call police. At least not until they had told their mother.

For two days, Vasey stayed silent, thinking the girls were safe at home because an aunt was visiting. For two days, she cried.

Then she and her husband notified police.

“There was a huge pressure lifted off me,” she said Thursday. “I stopped crying and started praying. You can’t imagine the pressure that was off of me.”

The story of what the sisters had endured only grew more tragic. They had been raped for years by two brothers and even their father.

And in those two days Vasey waited to report what the sisters had told her, one of them was assaulted again.

“I can still cry when I think I didn’t go ahead and call,” Vasey said. “Just two days. I still struggle with that.”

The girls’ story and how Vasey stepped in have been extensively documented in newspaper articles and talk shows. Just last week they taped a national talk show dealing with sexual abuse and how one call can make a difference.

Vasey doesn’t hesitate to tell people how important reporting abuse and neglect is, and every minute counts.

“You will never be able to forgive yourself for not speaking up,” she said. “I’m so afraid that someone else will struggle someday with the ‘Why didn’t I report that the day I suspected it?’

“I don’t want anyone to go through that. Don’t ever second-guess yourself. Don’t think twice. Just report it. There’s nothing in the world that can be worse than letting time go by.”

Anderson sees that.

In the days since she picked up the phone about her neighbor, strangers have come up and thanked her. Authorities say she’s a hero.

A cousin of the teen sent Anderson a Facebook message thanking her for making the call. The cousin said that Anderson rescued him from years of abuse.

Anderson hates that she didn’t call earlier and hopes others don’t wait when they see something suspicious or have a nagging feeling that something is wrong.

“I would tell people, people might tell you to mind your own business,” Anderson said. “But in cases like this, it’s good to be cautious and do right.

“Even if nothing’s going on, at least you would know everything’s OK.”