The boy was just 7 years old when he disappeared. And no one seemed to notice.
Not until authorities showed up in late November at the house his father and stepmother rented in Kansas City, Kan., and found human remains inside a barn. The remains have not been identified publicly, but the child’s father and stepmother, Michael A. Jones and Heather Jones, have been charged with felony first-degree murder.
Authorities haven’t said exactly what they think happened to Adrian Jones, known in court records as A.J. But as concerns about Kansas’ child welfare system intensify, so have questions surrounding the Kansas City, Kan., case.
“Why did A.J. fall through the cracks?” said Rep. Ponka-We Victors, a Wichita Democrat. “How can his case help us protect future A.J.s that are in the same environment he was in? … We need to hold more people accountable when it comes to his death.”
Little information has been released about his case and what was going on inside the Joneses’ home in the 5200 block of North 99th Street. Were there hotline calls for help? Had social workers ever visited the home? Did workers in other states where the family lived ever talk with the family?
Despite a Kansas law crafted to bring transparency to what the state did — or didn’t do — in a case where a child dies or is seriously injured, two months have passed, and still no answers.
Wyandotte County District Attorney Jerome Gorman said shortly after the discovery of remains that child welfare agencies in other Kansas counties and in other states had had contact with the family before, but he did not know the details.
The Star’s request for records from the Kansas Department for Children and Families, or DCF, has been denied pending a court motion. And a request from Missouri, where the family once reportedly lived, has been delayed after officials say they spoke with authorities in Wyandotte County.
“The District Attorney’s Office stated to us, among other things, release of the record at this point could compromise the investigation,” wrote Sarah Madden, special counsel for the Missouri Department of Social Services. “Per a request to delay release of the records … we will wait to provide the record to you.”
Gorman did not respond to requests for comment.
The public first heard about A.J. after police were called to the Jones residence late on the morning before Thanksgiving to investigate a report of an armed disturbance. At that time, they learned that the 7-year-old had been missing for an extended time. A search warrant the next day led to the remains.
Authorities removed six young girls from the home. They ranged in age from 1 to 10 and are now in protective custody.
The original charges against Michael A. Jones, 45, alleged child abuse from May 1 to Sept. 28 as well as assault and battery related to the armed disturbance, in which Heather Jones, 29, was the victim. In December, husband and wife were charged with murder.
Prosecutors said last week that they probably will upgrade the charges to premeditated first-degree murder, which carries a possible sentence of life in prison with no chance of parole for 50 years. Michael Jones is being held with bond set at $10 million bond and Heather Jones with bond set at $5 million.
All the public knows at this point is that Gorman described A.J.’s case as “one of the worst things” police investigators had ever seen. And a relative of Heather Jones told The Star last month that Heather called him and said her husband had fed A.J.’s body to the pigs.
‘Case by case basis’
On paper, Kansas appears to stand out as an example of transparency regarding child welfare records.
The state’s disclosure law, passed in 2004, says that after a child’s death or near death, information shall become public record. Lawmakers pushed the measure after the 2002 death of Brian Edgar, a 9-year-old whose adoptive parents wrapped him in duct tape from his ankles to the top of his head as punishment. He suffocated in their Overland Park home.
The Kansas law, though, says affected parties should be notified when a request for records is received. Those parties can ask the court to keep the records sealed. A judge then rules on the motion.
Among the affected parties? Prosecutors, according to the state, if a criminal charge has been filed. Also, the DCF secretary can ask the court to keep records closed.
When asked how often the secretary requests that records not be released, a DCF spokeswoman said the agency does not track that information.
“The decision regarding such filing is determined on a case by case basis,” spokeswoman Theresa Freed said.
In Missouri, after a child fatality or near fatality, the release of information is at the sole discretion of the director of the Missouri Department of Social Services, who reviews whether the information could harm siblings.
“Given that Kansas requires legal procedure and court findings to justify closure, while Missouri allows for ad hoc closure without any procedure or findings,” said Max Kautsch, a Lawrence lawyer who represents the Kansas Press Association, “Kansas is substantially more transparent than Missouri, with regard to the disclosure of juvenile fatality records.”
That was definitely the goal of the law, according to former Kansas state Sen. David Adkins, who sponsored the legislation in 2003. He could not be reached for this story, but in 2013 he told The Star that he was disappointed to hear how the law had been interpreted and that information after a child tragedy could be kept from the public after a prosecutor’s request.
“When you’re dealing with the lives of the most vulnerable children possible, to me it is unimaginable that the public would not demand accountability in those circumstances,” Adkins told the newspaper. “And the only way to achieve that accountability is through appropriate transparency.”
In A.J.’s case, the state responded to a Star request for information in December.
“I am writing to advise you that a motion objecting to the release of the records you requested has been filed,” wrote Freed. “Therefore, pending the ruling of the judge on the motion, we are unable at this time to fill your request.”
When asked who filed the motion objecting to the release, Freed later said in an email: “The agency can not disclose details of the case.”
Concerns surround agency
The Kansas child welfare agency has been under fire in recent months.
Earlier this month, a legislative committee approved an audit into whether the agency is adequately ensuring the safety of children in the foster care system. On Tuesday, during a hearing before the House Committee on Children & Seniors, DCF Secretary Phyllis Gilmore testified that Kansas has one of the safest foster care systems in the nation.
Others, however, say they have concerns about children in state custody and how they are treated.
“My concerns go from DCF clear down to contractors and some of the issues there,” said Rep. Erin Davis, an Olathe Republican. “What I’m most concerned with is making sure systemwide that we are looking at what the issues are.”
At Tuesday’s hearing, Victors, the Wichita lawmaker, listed the names of several children who died after DCF had been contacted about possible safety issues. That list included A.J.
“DCF was alerted to the problems,” Victors told The Star later. “We can’t afford to let that happen again.”
She said she’d like to see more transparency and more information about A.J.’s case and others like it to see if more could have been done.
“It was horrible how little A.J. passed away,” Victors said. “The more we know about it, the better. (Transparency) will help to track these kids and see what is happening.”
The Star’s Judy L. Thomas and The Wichita Eagle’s Bryan Lowry provided information for this report.