Missouri to release records in death of 4-year-old boy who was kicked and beaten

Officials with the Missouri Department of Social Services said Monday that they would release records soon in the case of a 4-year-old boy who died in October after being kicked and beaten.

Leaders in the state House of Representatives had pressed the department to make a decision by the end of the day Monday in the case of Lucas Barnes Webb of Holt. Though the agency had begun releasing information in a few recent child tragedies, officials held off in Lucas’ case, saying they needed another month to review it before deciding whether to release those records.

Last week, though, House Speaker Tim Jones and Rep. Jay Barnes, the chairman of the Committee on Government Oversight and Accountability, told agency officials that if they did not release the records, they would need to explain their rationale.

In an email to The Kansas City Star sent shortly after the 5 p.m. deadline, spokeswoman Rebecca Woelfel said the Department of Social Services would release Lucas’ information, and “we will be sending it to you as soon as the record is prepared.”

Jones, a Eureka Republican, was pleased to hear department officials had agreed to release the records.

“I think between the stories in the media and the calls for accountability from the legislature, that’s why they acted,” Jones said. “I’m glad they did, and we’ll be keeping an eye on that situation.”

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

And in doing that, some lawmakers and child advocates said, the agency was going against the intent of the state’s disclosure law, which was meant to share information with the public so the child welfare system can learn from mistakes and improve.

The recent change in disclosure philosophy started after June 22, when a girl known as L.P. was found locked in a closet amid her urine and feces. The Kansas City girl, then 10 years old, weighed just 32 pounds. She had been placed under state supervision in 2006 and was returned to her mother the next year.

For months, Social Services Department officials would not release information in the cases of L.P., Lucas and two other children.

On April 19, a lawyer for the department sent The Star an email saying it had decided to release L.P.’s records but it would take time to prepare them. The newspaper was then told it would have to wait for a further review in Lucas’ case.

The News-Leader received records from two child tragedy cases in southwest Missouri on April 22.

And though the St. Joseph News-Press was told last week it would have to wait another month for officials to review records in the case of an 8-month-old in Eagleville who died in September, the paper received another email Monday saying the records would be released soon.

Emily van Schenkhof, deputy director of Missouri KidsFirst, said she was encouraged by Monday’s developments.

“I’m really pleased that the General Assembly decided to care enough about this issue that they got involved,” she said. “And I’m pleased the department and administration have agreed this is a right thing to do. This is forward progress.

“I’m excited to see what we’ll learn from this.”