From all appearances, the adoption ceremony at the Jackson County Juvenile Justice Center might have seemed like any other.
“You understand,” the children’s lawyer said to their new mother-to-be, “if adopted, these three children will become your children for all legal and moral purposes just as if they had been naturally born to you?”
Micki Benson, 44, took in the moment.
As a single mom, she had already raised two daughters of her own to young adulthood. A one-time police officer in Prairie Village, Benson is now a catering cake decorator by profession. This is precisely what she wanted.
“Yes,” Benson replied.
During the ceremony Friday morning, there was no hint to how Benson, only 18 months prior, had been falsely reported for having kidnapped these same three children — her cousins Alyssa, 16, Ashlyn, 13, and Christopher, 12.
There was no mention of how in July 2017 — when she heard from neighbors that armed police, their cruiser lights flashing, were massing around her Kansas City house — she chose not to return home from Oceans of Fun, where she had taken the kids to celebrate Christopher’s birthday.
Instead, she drove them directly to a police station. They had been with her all summer. Their mother’s false claim against her was the last straw.
She had witnessed one child’s arms riddled with scabs, the result of scabies — mites that had burrowed and laid eggs under the skin. She saw evidence of how their father disciplined one with the buckle end of a belt. Accused of stealing $100 from him, the kids were forced to stand in a corner for hours and were whipped.
She knew from the children that their mother — Benson’s cousin, who had previously had two older children taken away by Missouri’s Department of Social Services — would lock them in their room for so many hours that they would be forced to crawl out of an upper window and onto the roof to relieve themselves.
They were often given no food, no water.
At the police station, Benson lifted one child’s shirt to show the police the bruises and scars. In defiance, she declared, “I’m not giving these kids back!”
Benson agreed to share the details of her story, with permission from the children, as an act of bravery.
“So they don’t feel like victims,” Benson said.
On Thursday morning, she is scheduled to tell some of that tale as part of a fundraiser, the 19th annual Light of Hope benefit breakfast in support of Jackson County CASA. CASA stands for Court Appointed Special Advocates. Volunteers for the group are trained to be the voice in court for Jackson County’s abused and neglected children.
At the adoption hearing, Amanda Privitera, their CASA volunteer, testified, “They are the bravest, most resilient kids I’ve ever met.”
Benson left it up to the children to decide whether she would tell their story at the CASA event.
“I really try to empower the kids,” Benson said. “When we sat down and had a family meeting to decide — are we going to do this with CASA? — I told them the best way to heal your heart is to do this for someone else. That is why they agreed. They want other kids that are in the same situation as them to have help.”
They agreed, she said, even though their story is “embarrassing to them.”
“It’s not like they want all the juicy details of their story out there,” she said. When Benson assured the children that it was their right to hold details back, she said they told her, “No, just tell it all, Micki. Tell it all.”
For Benson, the story goes back decades.
“I’ll tell you,” she shared, “my family is a cesspool of mental illness, drug abuse, alcoholism and meanness.” She didn’t suffer the neglect and deprivations of her young cousins, she said, but she knows what it’s like to experience abuse. She’d spent a few months in foster care when she was about 10 years old.
When she had her own biological children, two daughters now ages 28 and 22, she said her entire goal as a mother was to give them a different and better life.
In early 2017, she learned her young cousins might be in trouble. They were the kids of one of her first cousins, whom she hadn’t seen since 2011 at a grandparent’s funeral. She hadn’t seen the children for perhaps nine or 10 years.
“The last time I had seen Christopher,” Benson said, “he was still wearing floaties in the pool. Maybe he was 2 or 3.”
On Facebook, Benson had been contacted by one of the children’s two older sisters, one of those who had already been removed from her cousin’s care. “She said, ‘I hear things are really bad there,’” Benson recalled.
Concerned, Benson reached out to her cousin on Facebook. “I was like, ‘Hey, I live close by. Love to see the kids.’”
The first time Benson met the three children, she noticed how sweet, loving and naive they were.
“The kids were literally starved for attention,” she said. “The first times Ashlyn would stay with me, she would fall asleep with her holding my hand. She called it ‘Siamese-ing.’”
She also spotted what she thought were bedbug bites. The kids said they were from spiders. Benson came to discover that one child’s skin had been infested for three years. “She had scabs all the way up and down her arms,” Benson said.
Their clothes were old. Hygiene was a problem. The children were underweight. Benson said she could see from the start that the situation was serious. “The kids knew they had been hotlined,” in the past, she said. “But they were terrified of me calling DSS on them.”
Alyssa, the oldest, had once spoken to a school counselor. The result was severe punishment at home.
If the family got hotlined too much, the parents changed their school. “They would move them around if they got too much attention,” Benson said.
Over time, Benson came to learn what the kids endured: beatings, whippings, forced to stand in a corner for hours until they passed out. Ashlyn was once dragged across the floor by her hair. Alyssa got into an argument with her mom. “Her mom threatened to put her head through the china cabinet,” Benson said.
More common than the brutality was the neglect.
“Like one Thanksgiving,” Benson said. “Mom and Dad got in a huge fight. And she took the kids and left for three days and came back. All the food from Thanksgiving was left out. There were mice and roaches in it. They made the kids clean it all up. That’s their holiday memories.”
Then came the day of the alleged kidnapping. Often her cousin and cousin’s husband would simply leave the kids with Benson for weeks — never calling, never stopping by to check on them. That was the situation in the summer of 2017 when Benson happened to call. A state worker was coming by to check if the kids were in the home, as verification to continue receiving food stamps.
“When she asked for the kids back,” Benson recalled, “I said, ‘About that: How about you leave the kids with me? They can go to school and we don’t have to be ugly and stupid.’
“She went to the police station and said I kidnapped the children.”
At the police station, Benson revealed all. She showed the bruises. She explained how the children’s parents hadn’t checked on them in two weeks.
“The cop said, ‘I’m not going to keep you from leaving with the children.’ He gave me the hotline number. ‘Here is who you need to talk to.’”
The state and CASA were soon on the case. Benson’s biological children and other family members supported her decision.
Angie Blumel, the president and chief executive officer of Jackson County CASA, said that when children are removed from a home, the first priority is to try to place them with family members. After that, the agency looks for “kindship providers,” such as a good family friend, a trusted pastor or teacher who are willing to have children in their home and keep them safe. Foster care is the last resort.
“I’m so happy for the children that they have Micki and Micki has the kids,” Blumel said. “They are a beautiful family. I think what people need to know is that this case is really special because the vast majority of our kids, they want to go home. They want to be back with their biological parents.
“But in this situation, these kids clearly experienced such abuse and neglect and trauma, they did not want that. They had Micki.”
The children’s mother and biological fathers eventually agreed to terminate their parental rights.
“When a child’s parent doesn’t love them the right way, it leaves a scar. It follows you your whole life,” Benson said. “To me, it (adoption) is my message to the kids:
“You matter to me. I may not be your biological mom, but you matter to me. And you’re mine. And that doesn’t end when you’re 18.”
After the adoption ceremony, Benson and her kids gathered briefly at the CASA headquarters nearby.
“It’s been a really good day,” Alyssa said. “I spent a long time in that (abusive) situation. I never thought that I’d get out. I got out for like a minute. And then I ended up going back to it. I figured that’d just be my life. Then we met Micki.”
Ashlyn, too, wondered if the neglect would end.
“I hoped that it would,” she said, “but I didn’t think so.”
Now, as to what to call their new mom:
“To me,” Alyssa said, “ she is always going to be Micki, because the person we grew up with we called her Mom, and she wasn’t much of a mom. So it had a different meaning to us. I think Micki is more of a phrase we could use for, like, love and support, so it’s better that way.”
Ashlyn said, “I’m gonna call her Mom now.”
Christopher added, “All I’m glad is that I’m adopted and happy.”
▪ The 19th annual Light of Hope benefit breakfast in support of Jackson County CASA will be from 7:30 to 8:30 a.m at the Sheraton Kansas City Hotel at Crown Center, 2345 McGee St. Admission is free; donations accepted. See jacksoncountycasa-mo.org.
▪ To report child abuse and neglect: In Missouri, 800-392-3738. In Kansas, 800-922-5330.