On August 30, the death of seven-year-old Adrian Jones after years of abuse was once again in the news as family members filed suit against the agencies and staff that failed him. Adrian’s remains were found in a pigsty in 2015 after years of horrific abuse and repeated reports to authorities.
The lawsuit documents ten hotline calls in both Kansas and Missouri between 2011 and Adrian’s death in 2015. The calls began only three months after Adrian was removed from his mother’s custody due to allegations of neglect, and placed with his father and stepmother, Michael and Heather Jones.
Adrian’s mother, Dainna Pearce, filed the lawsuit along with her mother and oldest daughter.
The hotline callers alleged that there were guns all over the house within reach of the children; that Adrian’s father beat the children until they bled; that Adrian’s stepmother was observed to be high on drugs; and that she kicked Adrian “with a big boot on,” and choked him.
In the course of multiple investigations, Adrian told investigators that he was kicked and punched, tied up and locked in his room. His siblings reported that Heather Jones would take Adrian into a bathroom from which they heard “choking sounds.”
Documents show that social workers in Kansas deemed Adrian to be at “very high risk” of abuse and neglect. But nevertheless, they determined that he was “safe.”
In 2013, the Missouri Department of Social Services determined that Adrian was not safe. But instead of removing him, they opted to provide “intensive in-home services.” Within two weeks, the family told workers they were moving back to Kansas. When Kansas contacted the couple, they said they lived in Missouri.
In March 2014, Adrian was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and placed in residential treatment. The lawsuit alleges that his father and stepmother refused to participate in his treatment or transition plan. But he was still discharged to them in September 2014.
The lawsuit alleges that DCF received several more hotline calls about photos of Adrian being tortured that Heather Jones posted on Facebook. But no rescue ensued. Adrian’s remains were found in a pigsty in November 2015.
Later, police found that Heather Jones documented Adrian’s abuse through dozens of surveillance cameras. Images stored online showed Adrian strapped to a table and blindfolded, standing in a swimming pool overnight, bruised and bloody, and apparently tied up with a plate of food in front of him and a bar of soap in his mouth.
Michael and Heather Jones pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and were sentenced to life in prison.
Adrian’s story, while horrific, is also sadly familiar. Zymere Perkins was the subject of four CPS reports and a closed case in New York City when his mother’s boyfriend killed him in 2016. Yonatan Aguilar in California, after four investigations finding him at high risk of future maltreatment, was locked in a closet for three years until he died.
The Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities found that up to half of child fatalities involve children known to CPS, and even more were from families who were known in the past.
But these children who died are only the tip of the iceberg. For every Adrian Jones, there is an unknown number of children who survive chronic abuse before being rescued. Take the experience of Tonisha Hora, a 2017 Congressional intern:
At 14 years old, my twin sister and I were removed from a kinship care placement … after experiencing severe physical and verbal abuse for ten years … Child Protective Services often visited our home, sometimes multiple times a year, after they received reports from neighbors and teachers who we often asked for food to keep from being hungry or saw our bruises …
We were aware of how the system continued to fail us by never removing us from our home when they should have. To us, the signs were obvious, yet CPS workers always left us there. The abuse worsened after every CPS visit. That was the problem: they always left without us. Every time. For ten years.
Many factors may contribute to these system failures, including misguided policy, poor training, poor pay and high caseloads for CPS workers, and poor interstate communication. It is only by a comprehensive review undertaken by an outside party, and made publicly available, that citizens can learn what caused the failure and how to avoid it in the future.
Some states, like Michigan and Rhode Island, have established an independent children’s ombudsman or child advocate who reviews the deaths of children involved with child welfare and juvenile justice. Unfortunately, such comprehensive reviews are rarely available. It took the Kansas City Star 18 months to get Adrian’s 2,000-page record from the Kansas Department for Children and Families because of confidentiality concerns.
Neither Missouri or Kansas have made public any analysis of what went wrong in Adrian’s case, and what can be learned from the tragedy. We can do better.