Leslie Asher recalls feeling sickened the moment she discovered that one of her students, a high school junior with severe developmental disabilities, was pregnant.
This couldn’t have been consensual, she thought: The girl had the cognitive capacity of a 7-year-old. Asher, a special education teacher at Roosevelt High School at the time, contacted Hennepin County Child Protection Services and urged them to investigate. To her shock, the county said it could not open an investigation until the girl accused someone of assault.
“All I could think was: I can’t believe they expect a developmentally disabled girl to verbalize a sexual assault before even investigating,” Asher said. “It seemed unbelievable.”
That lapse, in 2014, would be one in a long and tragic chain of missed opportunities to rescue the girl and her twin sister from years of alleged abuse and neglect by their parents. The extent of the abuse became apparent only with the arrest of the girls’ father Feb. 21 and the search of what prosecutors have called a “house of horrors” in south Minneapolis.
It has prompted neighbors and relatives to ask why authorities didn’t do more to rescue the twins, and it has reignited long-simmering concerns that statewide reforms adopted in 2015 have not done enough to tighten up Minnesota’s porous child protection system.
“The system failed these children,” said Shannon Remer, who lives next door to the family’s house on the 4200 block of 17th Ave. S. “The school knew there were problems. The neighbors knew. The police knew. The county knew. We all knew. But it didn’t matter how many times it was reported, because nothing was done.”
Authorities fully grasped the yearslong abuse only after one of the girls ran away last spring and told workers at a homeless shelter that she was afraid to return home.
When police finally entered the house last May, they discovered what they called a “sex chamber,” with pornographic videos and a heavy wooden paddle wrapped in tape. The twins, now 21, described being repeatedly raped, beaten with bats and chained for days at a time without food. Clinicians who examined the twins and their many scars concluded they had been subjected to a pattern of abuse that was “clinically diagnostic of torture,” according to court documents.
In an interview, Hennepin County Deputy Administrator Jennifer DeCubellis acknowledged there are still “significant blind spots” in the system for protecting children from abuse and neglect.
“We still have too many people focused on their own silos,” said DeCubellis. “We don’t always know when a child is on the school’s radar. We don’t always see when police have had multiple calls to the same home. … We’ve still got a long way to go.”
For years, people who interacted with the twins and their parents were aware of dysfunction at the small, light-blue house on a quiet block in south Minneapolis.
Although the daughters sometimes disappeared for weeks at a time, they were well-known to authorities. Police visited the house more than 50 times — often in response to reports of domestic violence, records show. At Roosevelt High School, the girls participated in a special education program that included community outings and regular contact with social workers. And as far back as 2013, the girls reported being beaten by their father, Jerry Lee Curry, 52 who now faces multiple child abuse charges.
Much about the family and the actions taken by authorities remains unknown. Administrators at Roosevelt High School and Hennepin County declined to discuss the twins, citing privacy concerns. As a result, how many times the county received reports of abuse and neglect remains unclear.
Still, court records indicate that as far back as 2013, Hennepin County child protection workers knew of possible abuse in the home. One of the children reported that Curry struck her in the back of the head with his fist, and then banged a sibling’s head on the countertop. A third child in the home reported being punched in the face multiple times, court records show.
Even so, the county did not open a formal maltreatment investigation. Instead, in keeping with usual practice, the case was put on what is called a “family assessment” track. The county offered the family services, but the children’s mother, Shelia M. Wilson, 48, declined. The assessment was closed without any finding of maltreatment, court records show.
In June 2016, another child protection case was opened after officials received a report of threatened sexual abuse by Curry and Wilson. According to court records, Curry allegedly allowed drug dealers to have sex with two of the children in exchange for crack. Curry was observed beating the mother and the twins, and he would threaten them with his .45-caliber pistol, a child protection report said. Curry “was observed kicking, stomping on and punching” the children, the report said.
Once again, officials made no finding of criminal abuse and closed the case about four months later, records show.
Meanwhile, the torture appeared to go unabated. One of the twins described being chained to her parents’ bedroom door for days at a time. The chains were so tight that they caused deep wounds around her ankles, which bled and became infected. At one point, the infection caused gangrene and the girl had to undergo surgery to save her legs. She was also denied use of the bathroom, leaving her to stand in her urine and feces, according to a court protection order.
While neighbors on the quiet residential street were shocked when the details became public, several said they long suspected problems in the household. On many mornings, they said, a special education bus would pull up in front of the family’s home, honk several times, and then depart without the twins.
Jessie Behrhorst, who lives on the same block, said she avoided going too close to the house each day as she walked her beagle.
“The man, he would stare at me the wrong way — you know, leering — which made me really uncomfortable,” she said. “I could tell right away he was not someone I wanted to know.”
Remer, who lives next door, recalled how the twins would sometimes appear unannounced in her living room, looking hungry and asking for food. Once, when the girls were toddlers, Remer discovered that one of them had wandered into her yard. She recalled banging on the family’s front door for 10 minutes before they answered.
“I kept yelling: ‘You lost a child and you need to open the door,’ but no one seemed to care,” she said.
As the twin girls grew older, Remer saw them less frequently. Still, she was alarmed one afternoon to see them standing in their backyard in nothing but their underwear. The girls, then teenagers, stood there for hours, looking ashamed and not interacting with each other. Remer called the police. When officers arrived and knocked on the door, the girls were promptly let back in the house, but the officers left before questioning the parents, she said.
Less than a year later, she noticed the girls locked outside again, nearly naked in their underwear. This time, Remer said, she called the number to county child protection but never heard back.
“It seemed like a really sick and demented form of punishment,” Remer said. “There were plenty of red flags … that suggested that they could and should have done something sooner to protect those girls.”
Asher, who was the girls’ case manager at Roosevelt High School, described the twins as “fun-loving teenagers” who enjoyed going on outings with other students with developmental disabilities. In many ways, she said, they were typical teenagers: They went to school dances, flirted with boys and enjoyed poking fun at teachers. At the same time, staff worried about the girls’ frequent absences and sometimes erratic behavior, she said.
Those concerns became more urgent, she said, when one of the twins became pregnant. When pressed, the girl told an elaborate story about an older man who had followed her around the neighborhood and raped her in an empty warehouse. The girl’s twin sister repeated the same story.
“It didn’t seem believable,” Asher said. “I just had this gut feeling that this has got to be someone they know.”
But county child protection workers said they did not have enough evidence to launch an investigation, she said, and the twins soon fell off the radar once they left Roosevelt.
The murder of 4-year-old Eric Dean four years ago, after more than a dozen reports of suspected abuse, prompted Gov. Mark Dayton to appoint a special task force that called for more than 100 reforms of the child protection system.
One of the core reforms was to put a child’s safety ahead of family preservation. For years, most reports of child maltreatment would be routed to a controversial program known as “family assessment,” which is designed to keep families together by offering parents social services instead of punishing them for maltreatment.
Despite calls for change, more than 18,300 cases, or nearly 60 percent of all opened cases of child maltreatment, were routed through family assessments in 2016, state records show.
“That’s still way too high,” said Dr. Mark Hudson, a child abuse specialist and medical director of the Midwest Children’s Resource Center in Minneapolis. “We are way too wedded to a system that doesn’t prioritize finding out if children were abused.”
Rich Gehrman, executive director of Safe Passage for Children of Minnesota, said the twins’ years of torment might have been avoided had the county launched a family investigation in 2013, after they received detailed reports of physical abuse. The fact-finding would have been more rigorous, he said, and the children likely would have been interviewed alone — removed from the pressure of their abusers.
A family investigation “would have dramatically improved the chances of finding out what was happening in that home and saving those children,” Gehrman said.
In 2014, the girl who had so worried Leslie Asher gave birth to a baby boy (and another child in 2017), and DNA tests have since established that Curry is most likely the father. In a firsthand account to county officials, she said the little boy was malnourished while she and her twin sister were kept in handcuffs.
“I don’t remember ever being free or having enough food,” the girl said. “I have been chained to the door and bed every day for as long as I can remember … [Curry] would say that if we told, he would kill us and put us in the trash.”
Curry was arrested Feb. 21 and now faces nine felony charges, including two counts of first-degree assault, two counts of criminal sexual conduct and two counts of criminal abuse by a caregiver of a vulnerable adult.
The twin girls have guardians and now live at adult foster care homes in the Twin Cities.