The manner of death of a 6-year-old girl who died with a jump rope around her neck Dec. 27 in her foster home cannot be determined, Brooklyn Park police said Wednesday. But records obtained by the Star Tribune show investigators strongly considered the possibility that Kendrea Johnson committed suicide.
Deputy Chief Mark Bruley said that the evidence kept leading investigators to the belief that she intentionally killed herself, but that the department also agreed with the Hennepin County medical examiner that such an act is “outside what a normal 6-year-old could think about.”
“We just did our due diligence to tear this case apart and look at every angle,” Bruley said. “It’s hard to believe that it was even possible. We may never know if it was suicide or an accident.”
Two child therapists who reviewed the investigative records for the Star Tribune said it is indeed possible that the girl took her own life.
“I think all of those factors were in place here,” said George Realmuto, a University of Minnesota psychiatry professor.
At a June exam, Kendrea had been assessed as having homicidal and suicidal thoughts, and she had been receiving intensive treatment, according to the police reports. The exam noted that the girl “showed severe guilt, as she does not feel lovable or acceptable and reports feeling guilty and responsible for out-of-home placement.”
Kendrea was placed in foster care in December 2013 after Hennepin County child protection accused her mother of abusing drugs and not following through with a plan to keep her children safe.
Records show that Kendrea’s behavior changed dramatically in foster care. Her most recent foster mother told Brooklyn Park police that the girl once threatened to kill her with a screwdriver. Kendrea also told her foster mother that she wanted to jump out a window and kill herself, said “Nobody likes me” and drew pictures at school of a child hanging from a rope. Police found healed ligature marks on both sides of her neck, records show.
Kendrea’s foster and biological parents were stunned when police asked them if she had ever expressed thoughts about hurting herself.
The records don’t say if her foster parents, Tannise and Adrea Nawaqavou, knew about Kendrea’s treatments at a day facility for her mental illness. Her treatment included behavior therapy for post-traumatic stress syndrome, including anxiety and anger outbursts. At first, the report said, Kendrea had suicidal thoughts seven days a week, but they were down to five days a week just before she died, the report said.
A case to learn from
Jim Koppel, assistant commissioner of the state’s Child and Family Services, said the Department of Human Services will do an expedited mortality review of Kendrea’s case and look “as broadly as possible” at how the “system served and did not serve the child.”
The case emphasizes a need to ensure that children removed from an unsafe environment are placed in “one that improves their lives,” Koppel said.
Kendrea and her 1-year-old brother, Charles, had been under Nawaqavou’s care since March. The foster mother also cared for a 15-year-old boy who was developmentally challenged, the police reports say.
Just hours before her death, the girl appeared to be in a good mood, the reports say. She had seconds at dinner and went to her bedroom to color and watch cartoons. She had expressed excitement about a church dance she was to attend the next day.
Her foster father told police that he checked on Kendrea about 8 p.m. and that she appeared to be standing on her bed and watching television, the report said. He checked on her 10 minutes later and she was still in the same position, but this time hanging in a noose made from a jump rope. In their initial report, police said the rope’s knots appeared too sophisticated for a child to tie.
A white, three-gallon bucket was nearby. On the floor, a note written by a child in purple marker on a page torn from a book started with, “I’m sorry.” Another note said, “I’m sad for what I do.”
Mary Lee Broadus, Kendrea’s grandmother, told the Star Tribune that she did not believe that the girl hanged herself. “Somebody did it,” Broadus said Wednesday.
Kendrea knew not to put anything around her neck or any bags over her head, Broadus said. She was a “happy-go-lucky kid” and “a normal 6-year-old” who didn’t exhibit signs of mental illness, she said.
Reached Wednesday, Dareesha Waddle, the girl’s birth mother — whose children were removed from her care by the county — said, “You can talk to my lawyer,” then hung up.
Before the girl’s death, Nawaqavou told county social workers that she wanted to adopt Kendrea and her brother. Relatives also tried to get custody, but the county didn’t find any appropriate place for placement, child protection records show.
Nawaqavou’s foster care license was temporarily suspended after Kendrea’s death. The state has 90 days to reinstate, revoke or permanently suspend her license.
Realmuto, the U psychology professor, said that suicides among children Kendrea’s age are rare, but that they can occur when severe mental illness combines with impulsiveness, a lack of supervision and a trigger.
A 6-year-old cannot comprehend that death is permanent, but could try to self-punish, he said. She might, he said, have thought, “ ‘My life is awful, I’ve been a bad girl, nobody cares about me. I will punish myself by hanging myself.’ ”