Missouri agency will release records in KC case of child locked in closet

After months of refusing to release information, Missouri’s child welfare agency has agreed to turn over documents in the case of a Kansas City girl found locked in a closet.

That action, announced in an email to The Kansas City Star late Friday, reverses what appeared to be a clamping down on openness by the state that began in late June 2012 when the malnourished and dehydrated girl known as LP was rescued.

Although the agency had released information in other child tragedy cases before LP’s, officials have refused to say anything about her or how she slipped through the child-welfare cracks.

“The Department of Social Services Director has determined to release this record, and we will be sending it to you as soon as the record is prepared,” wrote Sarah Madden, the department’s special legal counsel.

A call was placed to Madden minutes after the email was received, shortly before 5 p.m. Friday, but an employee with her office said the attorney had left for the day. It remained unclear this weekend how long it would take the agency to prepare the records and make them public.

The decision by DSS to release information comes after months of requests by The Star and recent pressure from state lawmakers. Top House officials have said the agency’s refusal to release records in child tragedies contradicted the intent of a disclosure law that has been on the books for more than a decade.

In recent days, officials have expressed that to top DSS staff.

Last week, House Speaker Tim Jones, a Republican from Eureka, told The Star that Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, needed to order the release of documents in recent child tragedies or expect lawmakers to take action.

Rep. Jay Barnes, chairman of the House Committee on Government Oversight and Accountability, said he spoke with DSS director Alan Freeman on Thursday and reiterated to him how vital he and Jones think it is to share information in a case of a child fatality or near fatality. Another DSS official had been scheduled to testify Monday before Barnes’ committee on an unrelated issue, and legislators had planned to ask about the agency’s failure to release records.

“We believe it’s important to release records so the public can know what happened and avoid it from happening again,” said Barnes, a Republican from Jefferson City.

Missouri’s disclosure law was passed in 2000 after the starvation and torture deaths of two Kansas City brothers at the hands of their mother. The law says that information can be released after a child has died or been seriously injured by child abuse or neglect. That decision is at the sole discretion of the DSS director after a review of whether the information could harm siblings.

In a joint investigation last month, The Star and the Springfield News-Leader found that DSS had apparently shifted its philosophy regarding the disclosure of records. After more than three years of routinely releasing information, officials for the past nine months have denied requests for documents.

The change started after June 22, when then-10-year-old LP was found locked in a dark closet amid her own urine and feces. She weighed just 32 pounds. LP had been placed under state supervision in 2006 and was returned to her mother the next year.

Documents requested by the newspapers showed that since 2009, news organizations across the state had requested information in 22 child fatalities or near fatalities.

The state approved the release of information in 16 cases, and kept two under consideration. But in four other cases, including the one involving LP and three that occurred after hers, the DSS director refused to release any information.

Initially, an agency spokeswoman said state law prohibited her and others from saying anything about LP — not even confirming whether the agency had ever come into contact with the child.

When reminded that Missouri law allows the agency’s director to release information when a child dies or is seriously injured, the spokeswoman, Rebecca Woelfel, responded: “This matter is now in the hands of the criminal justice system. We will reserve any further comments until the conclusion of that process.”

Agency officials later said they were not releasing records because “our priority is to ensure that we do not hinder the criminal justice process.”

Jones said Saturday he was pleased by the action of DSS, but “we need to continue to push for an enhanced level of transparency and accountability especially in cases that involve the well being and safety of our young people.”

Nixon said earlier this month that he was not aware of “any significant policy changes” regarding the release of child welfare records. He referred questions to his staff, but the staff members did not respond.

Meanwhile, LP’s mother, Jacole Prince, is facing criminal prosecution on three felony counts. On Friday, Prince’s attorney and an assistant Jackson County prosecutor met in judge’s chambers, then in a court hearing, and briefly discussed a deposition that prosecutors plan to take of LP. Prince’s next hearing is scheduled for May 10.

Deciding to release the records is a step in the right direction, said Debby Howland, chairwoman of the Kansas City Child Abuse Roundtable Coalition.

“In this case, record review would be helpful in identifying what mistakes were made, if any, so they don’t happen again,” she said late Friday. “I would see these cases as learning opportunities.”