INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Madison County Prosecutor Rodney Cummings is hesitant to point fingers.
But you can tell the case involving a malnourished 16-year old girl described by nurses as “skin and bones,” has irked him.
It’s not just the egregious allegations that bother him – that the teenage girl weighed roughly 50 pounds, nearly died and had been locked in her room for nearly four years before authorities stepped in December.
It’s that newly released state records show the Indiana Department of Child Services knew there were concerns about the girl’s health as far back as 2010.
That year, allegations were brought to DCS that the child was “skeletal.” That led to a Child in Need of Services (or CHINS) report in juvenile court. The case was dismissed after a follow-up visit from a case worker, who reported the child seemed fine and the family’s Anderson home was in good order.
That’s despite the fact that a month earlier – in September of 2010 – a doctor told another case worker the child was malnourished.
The case worker’s own records show: “no removal is appropriate at this time.”
“It’s not the first time we’ve had this sort of catastrophic failure,” Cummings told I-Team 8. “It appears to me that there is a failure because we did not protect this child. And it’s not the first time it’s happened to children in our community.”
Cummings says he is frustrated by what he considers a problematic pattern of children slipping through the cracks.
“Rather than point fingers I would rather we have a dialogue about how do we prevent this from happening to the next child. And I don’t see that happening. That’s what concerns me most,” Cummings said. “It’s clear that we are not protecting our children to keep them from these types of horrible situations.”
In this case, the girl’s grandparents, Steve and Joetta Sells (and more recently their daughter Crystal), face a host of charges including battery and neglect of the teen.
James Wide, a spokesman for DCS, said he is open to that dialogue but added that it is often up to juvenile judges to determine if a CHINS case should move forward.
When pressed about whether DCS case workers failed to act in the Sells’ case, he said: “No we didn’t. We got involved.”
Wide encouraged community members to contact DCS if they witness child neglect, and said this case would be reviewed.
“Absolutely, we will review this case and see where we can improve,” Wide said.
A RECORD OF CONCERN
The girl, now 16, was rushed to Peyton Manning Children’s Hospital in December. Newly released Department of Child Services documents detail at least two prior investigations into the alleged malnourishment and treatment of an Anderson teenager.
Social workers investigated complaints that an Anderson girl might have been malnourished as far back as 2010 and first looked into her family in 2004.
But those cases were dismissed before the girl’s grandparents were arrested in December 2014, when the 15-year old girl collapsed in their Anderson home, nearly died and weighed less than 40 pounds, according to newly released documents obtained by I-Team 8.
The records, more than 200 pages in length, show that the Department of Child Services had investigated and dismissed complaints that the child, who was diagnosed with a mental disorder and was “skeletal and malnourished” in 2010.
In 2011, an allegation was made that the girl was being locked in her room and prevented from using the bathroom. There were other allegations about her living conditions: the feces in her bedroom, and others too graphic to print.
It wasn’t until December 2014, when the girl collapsed in the Anderson, Indiana home of her grandparents, Steve and Joetta Sells, that the teen was taken to Peyton Manning Children’s Hospital in grave condition. The documents obtained by I-Team 8 show she coded three times on the way to the hospital, was covered in feces, required several baths and had fleas.
Doctors determined she had pneumonia, cardiomyopathy and was severely malnourished.
She was placed and later removed from a ventilator and given a feeding tube. Her current condition is unknown.
The records show the teen was put on a “no publish list” by the hospital after two men and pastor came by the pediatric floor looking to visit the child in early December. The social worker at the hospital thought they might have been with the media.
DCS records obtained by I-Team 8 Thursday following a lengthy public records request show the agency first opened a case at the home in June of 2004. Details surrounding that case were not provided, but records note it was closed in 2009 without further explanation.
The records show DCS was first called to the home regarding the girl in September 2010 after an anonymous tip that the girl was “very malnourished, has lost a lot of weight and had a good sized bruise on her cheek.” The tip also described the girl as “skeletal.”
The report recommended further investigation.
Follow up visits were conducted at the home on Oct. 18, 22 and 26.
At the first visit, the DCS family case manager reported that Joetta Sells told her the girl was “upset about her coming and was trying to eat everyone’s food and not let anyone else eat because she was afraid she was going to be removed.”
The DCS case worker noted at the last visit to the home that month that her “was clean and appropriate,” and that the girl “appeared to be in very good spirits and hugged (me) goodbye.”
That month, records show St. John’s Hospital Clinical Dietician Amy Mercer wrote, in handwritten notes on the case, that she had “looked clinically and didn’t see any signs of malnutrition, except brittle hair, sunken eyes and dry skin.” The girl weighed 69 pounds at the time, and her lab levels were normal, Mercer also noted.
The case was also turned over that month to the court system as a “child in need of services”—or CHINS—case, where the Sells said the girl was not malnourished, ate four meals per day, and at times would “gorge herself on food.”
At the end of the 2010 collection of reports, DCS notes that “no removal is appropriate at this time.” The agency moved to dismiss its CHINS request on Nov. 8, 2010.
In October 2011, records obtained by I-Team 8 show DCS was called back to the Sells’ home, this time on a report that the girl was “being locked in her room for days without food or the ability to use the bathroom.” The tip also notes that there is “domestic violence in the home in the presence of children.”
Steve and Joetta Sells face several neglect charges as a result of this case.
DCS records show that Steve Sells denied any wrongdoing and said that the child refused to eat.
The Sells have previously declined repeated requests to speak to reporters.
In January, Steve Sells was hit with additional charges for welfare fraud for applying for medical benefits that were supposed to be used for the girl’s care, prosecutor’s alleged. That same month, Steve’s daughter, Crystal, was charged with battery in relation to the case.
Prosecutors called her an “active participant” in the alleged abuse and neglect of the girl.
Jail personnel told I-Team 8 Crystal has bonded out of jail.
Steve and Joetta Sells remain in jail awaiting trial. No one answered the door at their home.