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Lawmakers asked to improve abuse case investigations

Lawmakers asked to improve abuse case investigations

February 20th, 2018 by Bob Watson in Local News

The Missouri State Capitol is pictured here in August 2017.

Photo by Mikala Compton /News Tribune.

Missouri lawmakers should make it easier to create domestic violence homicide review panels, and to investigate child abuse cases that cross state lines, state senators were told Monday.

State Sen. Kiki Curls, D-Kansas City, cited the case of Adrian Jones as proof of the need for cooperation on child abuse investigations involving multiple states.

"Adrian Jones was 7 years old. He was abused, tortured, starved — and he was killed by his parents and fed to the pigs on their property," she said, noting the case "was widely reported nationally as one of the most horrific cases of child abuse that many of us have ever seen or heard."

Between investigators in Missouri and Kansas, she said, there were more than 2,000 pages of documentation, because his "transient family would move back-and-forth" between the states.

"Sometimes, in the case of transient families, it is difficult for the departments to determine jurisdiction," Curls told members of the Senate's Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence Committee, "and it severely disrupts the continuity of services that (the departments) are able to provide.

"This bill clarifies that the Children's Services Division may accept a report for investigation if either the child or the alleged perpetrator lives in Missouri, can be found in Missouri or if the incident occurred in Missouri."

Even though investigators in both states did share some of the information they had developed in the Jones case, Caitlin Whaley of the Social Service Department testified: "We really think that this is a critical piece to give us better ability to communicate with other state partners, on a number of different levels to keep children safe."

She said other states also are looking to improve "the ability of child protection agencies to share pertinent records" — and changes in other states will be needed to make the system work better.

Under current laws, Whaley said, "As (Adrian Jones' family) bounced back and forth between Kansas and Missouri, and a couple of other states, as soon as they crossed that state line, you had to have kind of a hands-off approach right now."

No one opposed Curls' bill, nor state Sen. Scott Sifton's proposal to create domestic violence homicide panels.

Sifton, D-Affton, said his bill "would allow for local prosecutors" to create those panels under state law, "the idea being to get experts around the table when we have a situation with a domestic violence fatality, to ascertain what happened and, frankly, what could have been done differently."

The bill also defines what parts of that panel's work would be open to the public — mainly its final report — and what parts would be closed records.

Also, Sifton said, the proposed law change is "permissive — there's no requirements that these be empaneled, but the bill simply lays out guidelines for what the panel should look like in the event a local prosecutor decides they want to do it."

Jennifer Carter Dochler, the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence's public policy director, told the committee: "This has been a request of several of our member agencies over a number of years."

She said the annual report would be submitted to the local officials and to her organization, the MCADSV, "so we're able to look at trends when multiple communities are conducting domestic violence fatality reviews."

Newton County Prosecutor Jake Skouby said the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys supports the idea.

"It mirrors what we already have when we have Child Death Review panels put together," he testified. "And the reports that have been collected over the years from Child Death Review panels have led to better practices when it comes to child safety restraints, proper sleeping positions for infants, bedding and that sort of thing."

While prosecutors already could gather interested people to talk about a local case, Skouby said, the law would create a framework for a statewide study of fatal domestic violence cases, as well as define what parts of the panels' work legally could be kept closed from the media and the public.