Cries for Help

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About the Story

 

An Eyewitness News investigation one year ago exposed mistakes by the state that ended with the death of four-year-old Anthony Bars.  As a result, legislators this year enacted a new law that opens up previously confidential child death records held by the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration.  Now the Investigators have the first in-depth look at those cases, the troubling circumstances behind them, and how lawmakers say the state is violating the new law by refusing to release certain documents.

 

This story was reported by Angie Moreschi, photographed and edited by Bill Ditton, and produced by Gerry Lanosga.

 

Part One

 

The names and graves are so many – one child killed by abuse or neglect every week in Indiana.  We wanted to know why.

 

The answers are in child death files that we're allowed to see for the first time under a new state law.  Eyewitness News asked the state for records on all the child abuse and neglect deaths since January 2003.  They describe beatings, drownings, fires, shootings and more.  And disturbingly, we found half the cases indicate some family history with Child Protective Services before the child died.

 

They are children like four-month-old Ellen Wicks who now lies in a peaceful grave in northern Indiana.

 

Baby Ellen was killed at a Motel 6 in Beech Grove by her 13-year-old brother.  When the baby wouldn't stop crying, he did what he'd seen his mother and her boyfriend do – muffle her cries with pillows.  The baby suffocated. 

 

The mother, Ruth Wicks, her boyfriend, Randy Sparks, and the boy were all convicted in the death.  But the story never before told is that Wicks had a long history with CPS.

 

Ruth Wicks’ sister, Krista, and the baby’s father, Henry Epps, said CPS ignored their warnings about the children’s safety.

 

The baby died unjustly because they didn't do their job,” said Krista.  “They told us since they have a roof over their head and food in their mouth, there's nothing wrong.”

 

“There was nothing done then,” Epps said.  “There was nothing done.  Well, now my daughter's dead.  If anybody understands that, tell me.”

 

In the months leading up to Ellen Wicks’ death, CPS was contacted at least four times by citizens and a police officer worried about the children, according to documents in the death file.

 

"I called CPS several times (on) several occasions and nothing was done,” said Raenetta Wickliffe, who worked with Ruth Wicks.

 

Wickliffe said she was concerned about the children's safety because of things she saw and heard from Wicks at work, including a phone call from Wicks’ 11-year-old daughter.

 

“She was crying, saying that the boyfriend had hit the baby to stop the baby from crying,” Wickliffe said.

 

At least two complaints to CPS also reported “the boyfriend hits the child” less than two months before she was killed.  But in the complaint reports, in response to the question, “Is the child in imminent danger of serious bodily harm?” the case manager typed “No.”

 

Less than three weeks before Ellen Wicks died, Indianapolis Police Officer Dawn Higgins saw the infant's 11-year-old sister walking down Arlington Avenue in a downpour.

 

“I just drove by for a second and then I was like, wait, that's not right,” Higgins said.

 

She said when she pulled over to talk to the girl, the girl told her parents had kicked her out.  Higgins took the girl to Beech Grove Police, who called Youth Emergency Services.

 

“I would have assumed they were taken from the home,” Higgins said of the children.

 

But Youth Emergency Services released the girl back to her mother.  Two days later, according to the documents, Wicks brought her back and said she wanted the girl “placed outside the home because of her attitude.”  Instead, the family was counseled, referred to further services and again sent home. 

 

Two weeks later, the girl's baby sister was dead. 

 

“I don't like to point fingers, but that's frightening,” Higgins said.  “There were a lot of red flags.”

 

We asked officials at the state’s Office of Family and Children why the children would be left in the home under those circumstances.

 

“Hindsight could be 20-20 here,” said OFC Director Jane Bisbee.

 

Bisbee and deputy director Steve DeMougin said it’s easy to second guess in retrospect, but at the time, the family was co-operating, so the division chose to work with them rather than remove the kids.

 

“Looking back on it, should more severe action have been taken?  Absolutely,” said DeMougin.  “But that’s the easiest thing in the world for any of us to say, because we weren't there when the decisions had to be made.”

 

Higgins said she doesn’t like to second-guess, but she would have removed the children.

 

“Honestly, this had to have been preventable, bottom line,” she said.

 

In fact, of the 48 cases we reviewed, the state characterized 23 deaths as probably or definitely preventable, including the death of Ellen Wicks.  As for how to prevent them, we found that often, that section of the report isn't even filled out.

 

Part Two

           

Half the Indiana children who died of abuse or neglect in some 50 cases we reviewed involved families with prior history with Child Protective Services.

 

They’re children like two-year-old Brieana Noe.

 

“She always had a smile on her face, whenever we were with her,” recalled her father, Brad May.

 

May said he repeatedly warned CPS that his daughter was in danger.   While case workers did investigate, they chose not to remove Brieana from her mother's care, attributing the father's allegations to a custody dispute.

 

“I told everybody who would listen that she was going to hurt my daughter,” May said.

 

And it happened.  Brieana was drowned by her mother in Fort Wayne this summer.  Judi Noe told police she “wrapped Brieana in a shower curtain and held her under shower water until her eyes rolled back in her head.”  She then kept the toddler's decomposing body in her apartment with her other children for more than two weeks.

 

Included in the Noe file are fairly detailed documents about several contacts with Judi Noe before she killed Brieana.  But in many other child death cases where prior CPS contact was noted, the state refused to release reports detailing that history.

 

Complicating matters is that judges charged with removing irrelevant information from the files have exercised that duty in widely varying ways – some removing very little and others blacking out large amounts of information, including the names of victims, perpetrators and even reporters whose stories were in the files.

 

Eyewitness News was able to confirm the identities and facts of the most of the cases through media accounts and other public sources.

 

The high profile case of four-year-old Diamond Edmonds in Indianapolis is one example where CPS history could be informative but was not released.  Diamond was beaten to death by her mother and her mother's boyfriend – whipped with a belt and switch over two days – for drinking out of someone else's cup.

 

Why did they do it?  Part of the answer could be in Diamond Edmonds’ CPS file.  Prior history is often a major indicator of future abuse, but in the file provided there are conflicting indications.  The fatality report states there was no prior history, but the file also includes documents referring to two previous investigations.  We asked top officials at the state's Division of Family and Children about the discrepancy.

 

“I don’t blame you,” said Deputy Director Steve DeMougin.  “That’s very confusing.”

 

The state later told us there was a history but they would release no further information because it was not directly related to Diamond's death.

 

DeMougin said he does not believe the new disclosure law requires the agency to release past history unless that history contributed to the death.

 

“That’s the advice of counsel,” he said.

 

The Family and Social Services Administration takes the position that it's up to the agency to decide what CPS history should or should not be released.  But that's a job the legislators who wrote the law say they specifically assigned to judges to avoid a conflict of interest. 

 

The agency’s pre-sorting of the records “violates the whole purpose of keeping the sorting to an independent detached judge,” said Rep. David Orentlicher (D-Indianapolis).

 

Orentlicher and others who worked on the new law say they definitely meant for previous CPS history to be released.

 

“Absolutely, it is part of the relevancy,” said Rep. Phil Hinkle (R-Indianapolis).  “It establishes a pattern.  It shows if, in fact, mistakes were made previously, if they were constantly repeated.  Previous history is definitely relevant.”

 

“If FSSA is not turning that information over, they are violating the law,” said Rep. Dennis Avery (D-Evansville).

We shared with agency leaders what the legislators had to say, but they stood by their position. 

 

“The language is very specific as to what is included and it is simply just the information surrounding the death,” DeMougin said.  “Our job is to apply the law as our legal council interprets it and that is exactly what we're doing.”

 

But those trying to fix a troubled system say this is an example of how those in the system continue to resist change.

 

“It's not a finger pointing process,” Hinkle said, “but it's an educational process, (so) that we can all work together to correct those shortcomings within the system and hopefully prevent any future children from being killed.”