Monday, March 19, 2007

10-year-old Melissa's death could have been avoided

'The system failed this little girl' -Police, social workers visited her home
Child advocate says parents should never have had custody
Kirby, Cassondra & Valarie Honeycutt Spears. Lexington Herald-Leader, March 14, 2007, pg. A1.

WINCHESTER -- There were plenty of chances to save blond, 10-year-old Michaela Watkins.

Grieving relatives said yesterday that social workers and police had visited the home to investigate complaints against her father and stepmother, Patrick and Joy Watkins, now charged with criminal abuse in her death.

They and an advocate for Kentucky children say the Watkinses should never have gotten custody of Michaela to begin with.

Michaela was found dead at her Winchester apartment Sunday afternoon. Witnesses told police that she had been dead for at least 45 minutes before emergency workers were called, court records show.

"The system failed this little girl," said Michaela's grandmother by marriage, Audrey Stokley, who said she had complained to social workers about Patrick Watkins. "They should have checked closer to see what we were talking about instead of saying, 'Well, it's fine.'"

Cabinet for Health and Family Services officials said yesterday they are launching an internal investigation into the case, as is customary when a child dies while being monitored by state social workers. The Cabinet decides case by case whether to release details about what led up to a child's death.

But Cabinet Undersecretary Tom Emberton Jr. said he would not release details about the cabinet's contact with Michaela because of the police investigation and in an effort to protect the confidentiality of her three siblings, who have been removed from the home.

Michaela's mother, Rachel Samules, divorced Patrick Watkins in 1997. Initially, she was given custody of Michaela. (Family members have given conflicting spellings of her name, which has also been reported as McCaylah.)

But Samules used to leave young Michaela home alone in Fayette County with her baby brother Michael, sometimes all day and night, in squalid conditions, relatives said. After finding them home alone, the state placed the two children in foster care more than a year ago.

They wound up with the Watkinses, despite Patrick Watkins' history of domestic violence, including several incidents against Samules and one against Joy Watkins, court records from Fayette and Clark counties show.

"I just can't figure out why they would give him custody of the children in the first place," said Samules' father, Gary Adams of Indianapolis. "Why didn't they contact the grandparents first?"

Betty Stokley, Joy Watkins' grandmother, said the Watkinses sought custody of Michaela -- who draws a disability check of at least $600 a month -- for the money.

Patrick Watkins' record and the Watkinses' convictions for domestic violence against each other should have been enough to prevent them from gaining full custody of Michaela and from adopting Michael, her half-brother, said David Richart, one of Kentucky's leading child advocates.

"Somebody dropped the ball," said Richart, executive director of the Louisville-based Institute on Children, Youth and Families. "I would go so far as to say that the death could have been prevented had the cabinet been diligent in investigating."

The Watkinses were each charged with first-degree criminal abuse on a child less than 12 years old, for failing to get treatment for Michaela's injuries, police said.

In a taped interview with police, both said they had noticed that the child's breathing was slowing and that a heartbeat was barely detected at one point, court records say.

The Watkinses, who declined an interview with the Herald-Leader yesterday, have pleaded not guilty. Samules could not be reached for comment.

Police would not say whether they believe Patrick Watkins' account that Michaela received her injuries from falling down the stairs. However, authorities have said that more charges are likely once they view the results of an autopsy that was completed Monday.

Despite witnessing repeated acts of violence, Betty Stokley said she did not notify social workers because she knew Patrick Watkins would cut her out of her grandchildren's lives. "I couldn't call social workers -- I wanted to keep the kids in my life," she said. "I thought this way I could keep a close eye on them. I don't know, maybe I should have done more."

Domestic violence connection
The system failed Michaela on many levels, advocates and officials say.

As far back as 1995, Kentucky child protection officials serving on a task force declared that there was a connection between parents who engage in domestic violence and the risk of physical abuse to their children.

Kentucky social workers routinely deny family members custody simply because there's an allegation of domestic violence, experts say. And mothers can lose custody of their children for not immediately taking them out of the home when a spouse or partner is violent.

Rachel Samules' December 1996 divorce petition mentions two incidents of domestic violence. In one, the petition alleges, Patrick Watkins "beat her about the head, stole her personal belongings, including her driver's license and all forms of personal identification."

Teachers often can spot abuse of children, but they could not help Michaela because the Watkinses were given permission to home-school her in December.

Yesterday, Diane Akers, Clark County's director of pupil personnel, said Kentucky's lax state laws governing home-schooling prohibited her from investigating why Michaela was being home-schooled or whether she was receiving an appropriate education. Michaela's death should be a wake-up call to lawmakers to strengthen the law, she said.

"It's a tragic situation," Akers said. "We are endangering a lot of children when we don't have some way" of determining how they are being educated.

Akers said that under state law, the Watkinses did not have to tell her why they were taking Michaela out of the school system, or give her details of the curriculum they intended to follow.

Akers said she has many concerns that among the 230 students being home-schooled in Clark County, several parents aren't providing adequate instruction. And she has always worried that some parents might be removing children to avoid scrutiny by school officials.

Shearer Elementary Principal Ed Sigmon said yesterday that there were "no signs that raised any red flags with us" while she was a student there.

Sigmon described the 10-year-old as "an overachiever -- a very hard-working young lady."

Neighbors set up a memorial in front of Michaela's front door Monday night, and staff members at Shearer are raising money to pay for her funeral and to fund a scholarship in her name. Lasting Impressions, in Winchester, also donated a dress for Michaela to be buried in.

Fund established for funeral, scholarship
Funeral arrangements for Michaela Watkins were incomplete yesterday, but the staff at Shearer Elementary School has set up a fund to help pay for her funeral expenses and for a scholarship in her name.

* To donate, call the school at (859) 744-4978 or send money to:
Peoples Exchange Bank
Grace Bible Church fund/ Michaela Watkins
c/o Lisa White
P.O. Box 95
Winchester, Ky. 40392


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