Seven-year-old Adrian Jones didn’t simply suffer the pangs of a missed meal. His organs shut down from starvation. Authorities believe that after he died, his father and stepmother fed his emaciated body to pigs.
Zane Pennington, 19 months, endured repeated beatings. The toddler’s autopsy tells us that much, showing evidence of past injuries. But little Zane died after his skull was fractured, reportedly as his mother’s boyfriend slammed his head to the floor.
These are just two horrendous child deaths in Kansas. Since 2008, more than 60 children have died in Kansas by neglect or abuse — although torture would be a more appropriate word for the cruelty that’s often involved.
The questions are obvious.
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What could have been done to save Adrian, Zane or the other precious lives? Did state social workers try to intervene? Could new policies, funding, shifts in staffing or procedure adjustments help?
After a child dies or suffers under such heinous circumstances, information should be forthcoming.
But the most basic questions often go unanswered publicly in Kansas.
Reporting by The Kansas City Star reveals that investigations into child deaths in Kansas have been shrouded in secrecy. It’s a problem that cries out for immediate legislative attention.
The fix is not complicated.
In 2004, former Republican Sen. David Adkins sponsored a bill to increase transparency after a child dies or is seriously injured. Adkins wanted the Kansas Department for Children and Families (DCF) to release information about its involvement in such cases. His legislation said information shall become a public record after a death or a near death. At least 30 other states have similar measures aimed at ensuring some openness.
But this necessary measure was significantly weakened by an addition to the original bill before it was passed into law. If an “affected individual” petitioned to keep records sealed, then a request for information could be denied. Police, prosecutors, the DCF secretary and even parents who are accused of the abuse can halt the release of information in many cases.
The “affected individual” provision needs to be stripped from the statutes.
Certainly, privacy must be respected. And information never should be used to embarrass or identify siblings. But this loophole in Kansas law does more to protect adults who don’t want their actions — or inaction — to be questioned than it does to aid children. Simply releasing a timeline of DCF’s involvement often would be sufficient, showing how and when state workers were notified and what actions they took or tried to take on behalf of the child.
Successful prosecutions happen regularly in other states, including Missouri, that are more forthcoming with information.
Social workers face daunting challenges as they navigate complicated family situations. They often successfully connect stressed parents and guardians with help, keeping families intact. Other times, they make tough calls to recommend that children be removed from their homes.
But without more information, it’s impossible to know if there are ways to help Kansas’ social workers do their jobs more effectively.
Unless the Legislature revisits the law, the public will never learn enough to advocate for changes.
Kansas can do better. Lawmakers must remove barriers to learning more about these deaths.