KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Vibrant learning posters for toddlers taped on the walls, a stained backpack, and a pink-tasseled bike parked outside the building are the only indicators that a child ever lived in an apartment on St. John Avenue.
Or in this case, two children – twins.
In early November, court records show Kansas City, Missouri, resident Adair Fish, 43, called 911 and said one of her children had been dead for several days and the other was unresponsive.
“When something like this happens, it shakes, not just the community, but it shakes the whole system to its core because this is the worst possible case scenario, this is what everyone dreads happening,” Rep. Keri Ingle, D-Lee’s Summit, said.
Police discovered the body of Ivy House, 4, dead inside a bedroom, her malnourished body already decomposing, according to court documents. Her twin sister, identified as AH in court documents, was also malnourished and unresponsive when first responders arrived.
Authorities found a dog in the home, 5-year-old Lenny, whose fur was so matted he had trouble seeing and walking.
Fish was arraigned on multiple charges this week, including abuse or neglect of a child resulting in death, abuse or neglect of a child resulting in serious emotional or physical injury, first-degree endangering the welfare of a child – death of a child, and first-degree endangering the welfare of a child – serious physical injury.
But questions about how something like this could have gone unnoticed for so long have since remained unanswered – until now.
“That was one of my biggest fears during COVID, was that kids weren’t going to daycare, they weren’t going to school, and that has been a social safety net for kids for a really long time,” Ingle said.
“That’s how we’ve been able to find kids that would’ve otherwise just fallen through the cracks.”
A four-month investigation by FOX4 Problem Solvers found that police, caseworkers, neighbors and housing voucher programs all checked on Fish, but policies didn’t allow for further intervention, exposing the ugly underbelly of a foster care system that failed to hold Fish accountable.
“I would say that these were children that unfortunately fell through the cracks, that didn’t have anyone laying eyes on them within the community, and so when they disappeared from the community, no one knew to reach out,” Ingle said. “No one knew to reach out for help and people have to be willing to accept help.”
Problem Solvers emailed the Missouri Department of Social Services’ Children’s Division at least twice for comment, but it declined to comment or be interviewed.
Timeline of events
Court documents show Fish lost custody of her daughters in May 2018 after she was arrested and convicted of assaulting a police officer.
Records show Fish kicked a police officer at least 15 times and tore his radio off his shirt as he tried to remove her from her neighbor’s pool shed. She was sentenced to serve 275 days in jail.
Fish appeared to be under the influence at the time, according to court documents, and had broken into someone’s home before being located in the shed.
Records indicate Fish had untreated substance abuse issues, including use of methamphetamines and marijuana.
She admitted to law enforcement she smoked methamphetamine with children in the home, to which officers visited the home and found methamphetamine and marijuana, along with a glass pipe containing residue inside the same room as the children.
The twins were removed from Fish’s custody less than a week later and placed into the custody of a foster parent through the Missouri Department of Social Services’ Children’s Division.
A 2016 mental evaluation revealed Fish was diagnosed with unspecified schizophrenia and a psychotic disorder.
“Mental health cases are the hardest cases because it’s a chemical imbalance usually in the brain that requires medication and support,” Laurie Snell, child custody attorney at the Missouri Bar said.
Ingle said the reason mental health cases are so tricky is because a person has to be willing to cooperate with mental health treatment, otherwise, it will never work.
“There’s no way to mandate that the parent accept the services,” she said.
Fish lost custody of the twins after authorities discovered drugs on her property. A judge eventually returned the children to her in November 2019.
Court documents indicate Fish was not cooperative for her mental evaluation and drug testing for at least 10 months after losing custody.
Ingle said it’s not uncommon for parents to be uncooperative with the courts when their custody rights are initially revoked.
“Honestly, a lot of times, when kids first enter the system, it’s very adversarial and they (parents) feel like the Children’s Division and any service providers are against them and if they participate, they’re going to be giving them evidence and material to get their kids taken away forever,” Ingle said. “So, there’s a lot of distrust.”
Despite almost a year of resistance in complying with court recommendations, Fish eventually became compliant, records show.
“The vast majority of cases, the goal is reunification and that’s for the first 12 to 15 months and that’s federal law under the Adoption and Safe Families Act,” Ingle said.
But Snell said she believes the foster care system could serve to be a little more patient with parents struggling from mental health disorders.
“These families with mental health issues absolutely can benefit from more time,” she said.
Who was checking in?
A person with firsthand knowledge of the children’s foster care told Problem Solvers just a couple of months after Fish regained custody, the girls’ behavior had noticeably changed.
The person said the twins were “not talking, dirty and different.”
FOX4 discovered police were previously called to Fish’s home for a welfare check in March last year, nearly three years after the girls were released from the court’s supervision and placed in Fish’s full custody.
“Officers tried to call and knocked on (the) door several times with no answer,” a spokesperson with the Kansas City Police Department said in an email.
Months before that, someone close to Fish said she denied a yearly inspection from a housing voucher program she was a recipient of.
The next time officers showed up to Fish’s address was eight months later, when she called to report one of her daughters was dead and the other was unresponsive.
“It’s always horrifying and kind of just shakes you to your core when you hear about this happening to kids,” Ingle said.
The surviving twin, referred to as AH in court documents, was treated at a hospital where records indicate she had gained just four pounds in the almost three-year period since her last weight check in the hospital system.
The now 5-year-old’s weight placed her near the average weight of a 20-month-old, records show.
“There’s all kinds of people out there that are on medication and have support from their family,” Snell said. “If you don’t have support from your family, the child protective system is going to kick in.”
Court documents show the children were placed in foster care in 2018 after some family members declined to participate in their care.
The question of paternity was never resolved. The judge requested a paternity test for the man believed to be the twins’ father, but he never provided a sample. Court records state the man was homeless and difficult to track down.
“If there’s not family that’s seeing them regularly, or neighbors that are regularly seeing them and then suddenly not, then the system isn’t triggered,” Ingle said.
Ingle said what happened to Fish’s daughters was a toxic concoction of COVID-19 isolation, substance abuse, lack of family support and mental health struggles.
“I think that this was the perfect storm and confluence of a lot of really, really bad things at once,” she said.
“I think if we had had a situation where folks were able to go into her home and she was willing to let them – even when a welfare check is called and the police go to check on the wellbeing of the children or the wellbeing of folks in the home, it’s still the right of the occupant of that home to let them in or not.”
Could this tragedy be prevented?
Ingle said the most important thing people in the community can do if they suspect child abuse or neglect is to report it by calling the child abuse and neglect hotline at 1-800-392-3738.
“It takes a village to raise children and I know that a lot of people might feel that they’re being intrusive or that they’re being judgmental but when you see something, say something, especially when it’s the life of a child that may be at risk,” she said.
“It’s way better for a Children’s Division worker or a law enforcement officer to go out and check on the welfare of a child, find out there’s nothing at all and just say, ‘Hi, just checking it out.’ It’s an easy case to close.”
She said she believes increasing pay at the Children’s Division is the first step to addressing cracks in the foster care system, an industry that she acknowledged is severely understaffed.
She also said she is seeking legislation that allows further intervention by the courts than what’s currently allowed for children who are below school age.
“There’s no family that looks the same, regardless of what demographic, or what brought them into the system,” she said.
“They (families) have different strengths and needs, so we’ve got to be able to have the flexibility to look at, ‘What is the best interest of these children?’ and putting that at the forefront of everything that we’re doing.”