8 Investigates: Who's Watching the Children

Sharanda Crews
Sharanda Crews

JONESBORO, AR (KAIT) -- There are children in our midst for whom we know little about "until" their names are read on the news.  By then, it's too late.  Abuse and neglect cases are called in every day to the Child Abuse Hotline.  But what happens from there may surprise you.

State Police Crimes Against Children investigators conduct inquiries into all allegations of abuse, neglect and maltreatment. They talk to the children, caregivers and other witnesses. It's their duty to assess the situation.  But does the system, designed to protect the smallest members of our society--ever fail the child?

On July 16, 2012, the fire was so hot and burned so fast even neighbors couldn't get six-year-old Breeonna Shirley out in time.  Left in the care of her mother's boyfriend, Shirley died in that house fire. Just one month earlier, someone reported that Breeonna wasn't being adequately supervised.  The claim was deemed "unsubstantiated" by DHS. Prior to that and also in Greene County, DHS records show authorities investigated the case of infant Abigail Farmer for possible medical neglect.  Less than three months later, Abigail died due to inadequate supervision.  Before that, there was Caitlynn Clements in Cross county.  A claim of neglect was made on her in August of 2009.  She and her brother died in a house fire two months later.

"I'm stunned," said Dr. Sylvia Richards, a long-time CASA volunteer.  She shook her head in disbelief.  Dr. Sylvia Richards worked with children in foster care for over 15 years.  As a CASA, she was a child's voice in court.

"I had no idea there were this many," said Richards.

"Each paperclip represents one case," I told her.

Dr. Richards and I looked through the many cases of deaths involving children in Region 8.

Leafing through the reports, I can't help but voice my opinion about some of them.

"Why would you not feed your baby?  He died two months after he was born and that was in Greene County."

Dr. Richards looks intently as I read the narrative provided by the DHS Child Fatality Notification report.

"With this stack, you could work 24 hours a day every day of the year, 365 days and probably never get it taken care of, " said Dr. Richards.  "But, they try...at least that's my opinion."

They are the Department of Children and Family Services.  DCFS says nearly 34,000 cases of child abuse and neglect were reported last year. Only 8-thousand were found to be true. Craighead county reported the most, in our area, not surprisingly due to population.

Poinsett county, the least.

"We just ended up going into care until it was almost just too late," said Sharanda Crews, a former foster child from Northeast Arkansas.  Now she's a sophomore political science major at Arkansas State University.

Sharanda Crews went into foster care when she was 16 years old.

"We had lived with my mom's boyfriend, Mark, once and he had raped myself and my sister," said Sharanda.

It took several years before the sisters and a younger brother were placed in foster care.  Sharanda was sent to East Arkansas Youth Services, a detention center in Marion and was eventually moved to group home in Marianna.

"I nicknamed it. I call it the group home from hell," explained Sharanda.  "It's by far the worst place I've ever been."

Other than to go to school, the youth spent their remaining time in their bedrooms.

"I've been in group homes," said Sharanda. "I've been in detention centers most of the time.  I've only been in one foster home though…for one weekend out of three years."

156 weeks.  Just three days in a foster home. Why? It's a numbers game.    There are over 3,500 children Arkansas' foster care system.

In Craighead County, 38 foster care homes are not enough to house approximately 140 kids. In Poinsett County, there's just 4.

"I don't want other kids to go through those kinds of things," said Sharanda.  "We didn't ask to be in foster care.  Most of us don't ask to be."  Sharanda cries.  "Most of us are taken."

But, will they be taken in time?  This is the stack of child deaths in Region 8 that have happened over the past 4 years.

29 in all.  Some were accidents. But, 8 had been reported to DHS--sometimes once--even multiple times.

"A review of each case after the deaths confirmed that there were not enough facts to support the allegations.  Just because the allegations were unsubstantiated, does not mean the agency erred if the child later dies," said Amy Webb, Director of Communications for DHS.

Breeonna Shirley did die in the fire that consumed her home.  Jerry Laroe, her mother's boyfriend, pleaded guilty to two counts of endangering the welfare of a minor.  By pleading guilty, he escaped the manslaughter charge and will now spend six years in prison.

Precious lives--like Breeonna's-- lost forever.

Make your voice heard if you think a child is being abused or neglected.  Call the Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-482-5964.

Become a foster parent to help and let your lawmakers know how you feel about what you've seen in this report.