The murder charges brought against 22-year-old Joseph Nelson rocketed though the offices of the Midwest Foster Care and Adoption Association in Independence, reducing some of the world’s toughest people to horrified gasps and tears.
They knew this young man, the one staring almost soulfully into the camera for his police mug shot.
Nelson is charged with killing his ex-girlfriend, 17-year-old Bianca Fletcher; her friend, 18-year-old Shannon Rollins; and a 1-year-old baby, Joseph Fletcher, who is believed to be Nelson’s own son. All were found dead in a home in south Kansas City on Sept. 8.
“This little boy called me ‘mom’ for almost eight years,” said Tammy Spears, a veteran foster parent who took Nelson in when he was a traumatized child of about 8, removed from his mother’s home because of suspected abuse on the part of his mother’s boyfriend.
For almost a decade the boy was in and out of Spears’ home and life. She and her husband, Tim, wanted to adopt him, as they have done with about 20 of the hundreds of children they’ve taken in.
But “the system,” as they call the network of caseworkers and court personnel charged with protecting children in Missouri, kept pulling Nelson away.
He was sent back to his mother’s home at least twice, and was once placed in the care of a grandmother. He was allowed to leave Spears’ home for another placement because he didn’t want to follow her rules. Every time Nelson cycled through Spears’ home, he was angrier and less able to cope. He broke windows and upturned rooms. He needed medications to regulate his emotions.
“We always worried about what was going to happen to Joe,” said Spears, who also works as a family advocate for Midwest Foster Care.
Lori Ross, president and CEO of Midwest Foster Care, has cared for more than 400 foster children over 30 years. She spends a lot of time helping her kids cope with anger issues.
Now Ross was angry. Boiling, in fact. Nelson was the second young man this year in Kansas City who had aged out of foster care and ended up facing a murder charge. The first was Hakeem Malik, one of four persons arrested after a bungled armed robbery at a Shawnee gun shop, She’s a Pistol.
Ross nursed her anger for a day and then let loose in a Facebook post.
“This morning I’m still furious,” she wrote. “I’m still thinking of Joseph Nelson, Hakeem Malik, and the thousands of other aged-out foster care veterans who couldn’t ‘pull themselves up by their bootstraps,’ figure out how to regulate their emotions and learn to trust and genuinely love.
“I’m thinking of all the ways we fail kids within the system.” Ross wrote.
She went on to blast foster parents who give up on kids when the going gets rough, caseworkers who “click the reject button” rather than accept a teenager’s phone call, judges who fall asleep at hearings where a child’s destiny is being determined and bureaucrats who recommend more “training” for stressed-out families instead of real help.
“This ... system needs to figure out that children need FOREVER families,” Ross wrote. “And if you aren’t willing to make that your ONLY goal, then get the hell out of the way.”
Ross confined her anger to those whom she sees as the bad actors within the child protection system. That seems a bit unfair, seeing as most of us aren’t brave enough to wade into her world and endure the frustrations and heartache that come with it.
But Ross, and Spears, too, are frustrated by an inertia within the system that leaves children like Nelson adrift.
Nelson’s first reunification with his mother out of foster care lasted for only one month, they said. Right then, Ross said, caseworkers should have begun seeking a permanent placement for the boy. “Nobody should be in limbo for 10 years,” she said.
Could the child protection system have changed the trajectory that left three people dead by finding a permanent placement for Nelson early on? Ross and Spears believe so. They say experienced foster or adoptive parents could have taught Nelson to control his rages and emotions, and their guidance would have continued into his adulthood.
Instead, after his unsettled childhood, Nelson was left at age 18 to figure out life on his own, in a city where guns are easier to find than helping hands. He is accused of shooting Bianca Fletcher after she heaved a box of diapers at him. Prosecutors say he shot Rollins and the baby Joseph to leave no witnesses.
After completing her Facebook post, Ross composed a more measured email to Tim Decker, director of Missouri’s Children’s Division. She asked him to form a task force to review the histories of young people who commit violent crimes or commit suicide soon after aging out of the state’s custody.
“I believe we would find places where individuals and teams went astray, and I’d like to know why,” she wrote, adding that her intent was to use the information to try to prevent future calamities.
As of Tuesday, Ross hadn’t heard back from Decker. But he should form that task force. And the system — which is all of us, really — should do better by these kids.