Child protection workers and care providers failed to work together for more than a year to safeguard 6-year-old Kendrea Johnson, despite knowing she was severely mentally ill and living in a chaotic Brooklyn Park foster home, according to city and county records and a source familiar with the case.
Before she was found Dec. 27 hanging from a jump rope tied to her bunk bed, Kendrea was reportedly sexually endangered, threatened with beatings, locked in her room and may have been exposed to pornography — all the while becoming extremely angry that she could not be returned to her family, records show.
The Hennepin County child protection worker charged with overseeing her case told police that he didn’t know that the girl was suicidal, even though her mental health providers documented that she thought about it daily, records show. That lack of knowledge was “unconscionable,” according to one child mental health professional.
And, in the months before Kendrea died, the county’s child protection unit decided not to investigate four reports of neglect at the foster home, according to a source with direct knowledge of the case.
Kendrea’s death comes at a time of intense scrutiny of how Minnesota can better protect vulnerable children, with the focus on the large percentage of abuse reports that go uninvestigated.
Specific concerns about the welfare of the foster children living in the Brooklyn Park foster home were reported twice last June to protection workers, once in August and again in September, according to the source. Details of each of the calls are being withheld by the county due to data practices laws, the source said. But for each of those four calls, the source said, protection workers screened out the report — meaning the warning calls didn’t rise to the level of concern warranting further investigation.
One of those reports involved “inappropriate sexual activity” in August between the girl and another child in the home, according to a lengthy Brooklyn Park police report.
Tannise Nawaqavou, the 53-year-old foster care mother, notified child protection about finding Kendrea partially naked with another child in the home last August, reports show. But child protection records provided to police show that workers failed to investigate the possible maltreatment further, stating that it was “ruled out for not meeting any allegations.”
In late September, county social workers received a neglect report about Kendrea being locked in one of the home’s bedrooms. It was screened out because the foster care mother told workers that she did this to keep the child from wandering, records show. Kendrea’s court-appointed advocate said in a report that confining the girl that way “in and of itself is unsafe.” The advocate described the foster mother as being “overwhelmed by the difficulty of caring for Kendrea.”
Janine Moore, director of Hennepin County Children and Family Services, said Friday that she could not comment on her staff’s decisions, citing data privacy laws governing the release of information in child protection reports.
At least three investigations are underway into Kendrea’s death and the care she was provided, according to state human services officials. Those investigations include a county child protection investigation of maltreatment and whether the licenser — Family Alternatives — provided proper oversight of the foster home.
Last year, a Star Tribune investigation documented systemic failures by county child protection units across Minnesota. Those reports prompted Gov. Mark Dayton to create a task force, which has proposed reforms on when abused children should be removed from their homes and put in foster care. Two bills in the Legislature would require that more abuse cases be accepted for in-depth investigation.
A possible suicide
Last week, Brooklyn Park police closed their investigation, saying the manner of Kendrea’s death was undetermined. Police had focused on whether she committed suicide. The Hennepin County Medical Examiner cautioned that the decision to carry out such an act is “outside what a normal 6-year-old could think about.”Kendrea’s grandmother remains convinced that the girl did not take her own life.
The foster home, with blankets covering the windows, is located in a cul-de-sac at 9266 Queens Gardens N., standing apart from the surrounding homes that are otherwise well-kept. Nawaqavou rented the house in 2011, according to the owner, Anna Majors, who told police that she believed her tenant is “a hoarder, and the house is starting to have issues because of this.”
Nawaqavou’s foster license to care for up to five children was suspended following the death “due to imminent risk of harm” to the other children in the home, according to Minnesota Department of Human Services officials. They said Nawaqavou had been licensed since 2011. She did not return phone calls and could not be reached at her home.
Kendrea is removed
In May 2013, Kendrea’s mother, Dareesha Waddle, was first reported to child protection after her newborn son was placed in intensive care because he was withdrawing from drugs. Instead of removing the children from the home, protection workers met with her and the baby’s father the next month and opened a case plan that required them to address her mental illness and their drug issues. For months, the parents failed to follow the plan but protection workers did not intervene until October 2013, when they filed a petition seeking a court order to make the parents keep the children safe.
After a November 2013 court order directed Waddle to follow the county’s safety plan, the children were allowed to remain in the home. In January 2014, after continued failures to comply, the two children were put into foster care.
Kendrea’s mental health then started to deteriorate, records show. She became destructive and told her court-appointed child advocate that she wanted to be back with her family.
In April 2014, Nawaqavou filled out a county questionnaire stating that Kendrea twice threatened to kill her with a screwdriver and that the girl climbed on a bunk bed and said she would jump out of a window to kill herself because “nobody likes me.”
In the summer, the child was allegedly threatened with beatings, according to the homeowner who told police after the girl’s death about an incident she witnessed. The homeowner, Majors, told police that she heard Nawaqavou tell the girl, “Can’t really beat you because you are not mine,” the police report says. The homeowner’s daughter also recounted to police that she heard Nawaqavou tell Kendrea, “Keep acting up and I’ll have [someone else] beat you; she won’t get in trouble for it.”
The homeowner’s daughter told police that she believed Nawaqavou allegedly made such comments “in connection with the fact that she [Nawaqavou] would get in trouble with her status as a foster parent if she were to beat any of the children herself,” according to reports.
In June, specialists at LifeSpan, Kendrea’s school and treatment provider in Shoreview, assessed her behaviors and concluded that she suffered from homicidal and suicidal thoughts every day. They said that they would try to reduce that pattern to six days a week. In the week before Kendrea’s death, the school reported that the thoughts were down to five days.
But Richard Johnson, the girl’s child protection worker, told police after the death that he did not know of any suicidal thoughts or threats that the girl had made, or any mental disorders.
“He has been periodically checking in with her and everything seems to be doing fine at LifeSpan,” the police report recounted Johnson as saying. Johnson did not respond to a request for comment.
Anne Gearity, a child therapist experienced with the county’s protection system, said that for Johnson to say that he did not know about Kendrea’s mental illnesses is “unconscionable.”
“The social worker is the one who is the responsible adult who is supposed to be keeping track of this girl’s well-being,” Gearity said.
Dr. George Realmuto, a psychiatrist who has treated children under county supervision, said the county should have placed Kendrea with foster parents trained to handle child mental illness or admitted her into a treatment facility.
“She needed intensive therapy,” said Realmuto, also a University of Minnesota professor. “The home she was in was not that.”
On the night Kendrea died, Nawaqavou’s son called a 911 dispatcher and received directions on how to resuscitate her, according to the police report. Until police arrived, no one administered CPR to the girl, the report said.