The Minneapolis mother charged with repeatedly raping and torturing her young children had been on the radar of Hennepin County Child Protection Services officials for more than four years before her arrest earlier this year.
Since January 2014, her children have been the subject of at least seven child protection reports. Court records show the most recent case, opened in February 2017, alleged neglect and inadequate supervision of her five children, then ages 1-8. County officials closed the case without any new protections.
The mother was charged earlier this week with four counts each of first- and second-degree criminal sexual conduct, a single count of stalking, and four counts of malicious punishment of a child. She remains jailed in lieu of $750,000 bail. The alleged abuse was revealed during a doctor's visit in May.
Even though she has been formally charged, the Star Tribune is not naming her to protect the identities of her children.
Court documents paint a troubling picture of the woman, who had been investigated by Child Protection before her February arrest for numerous allegations of child abuse. In 2014, school officials alerted child protection workers after a kindergartner showed up limping, saying the injuries came from a beating by his mother.
A year later, Child Protection contacted his mother after receiving another allegation of abuse involving the same boy. Because of the two incidents, child protection workers became "concerned about the children's welfare and safety," read a 2017 agency report, and the mother was referred to a parenting program for "parents with development delay."
In October 2015, the boy's younger brother arrived at school with bruises on his face. His mother, he told authorities, beat him with a broom for spilling food. This time, an investigation was opened and Brooklyn Park police were also notified, the records show.
No maltreatment finding
Eight days after that report, Child Protection received another report, of emotional abuse and neglect against all five children. The case was closed with no finding of maltreatment, the agency's records show, and after the woman completed a safety plan in April 2016.
Jennifer DeCubellis, Hennepin County deputy county administrator for health and human services, declined to discuss the specifics of the case because of confidentiality and privacy requirements, but said that authorities take all allegations of child abuse seriously.
As with all cases, she said, Child Protection must meet a certain legal threshold before removing a child from home.
"Our heart goes out that anytime any child is hurt, which is why we're in this business," she said. "Nobody wants to see a knee-jerk reaction and remove a child who didn't need to be removed, and nobody wants to keep a child in harm's way any longer than they need to be."
The mother made her first appearance in Hennepin County District Court on the new criminal charges earlier this week. After her lawyer waived a reading of the charges, District Judge Kathryn Quaintance ordered the woman to undergo an evaluation to determine whether she is mentally competent to stand trial. Quaintance also ordered her not to contact her children.
She was back in court on Friday, this time for her pending child protection case. During the hearing, a court-appointed guardian for the children reported that the children were in a "supportive and nurturing environment, both at home and in school," and would soon resume therapy.
Her next hearing is Aug. 3. Both of her attorneys, in the criminal and child protection cases, declined to comment.
Allegations of sexual disease
In court filings, prosecutors said they had sought tougher charges because, among other factors, she exposed two of the children to a "sexually transmitted infection while sexually abusing them."
Police were called to her home in the 3400 block of Morgan Avenue N. on the evening of Feb. 9 for a report of a domestic disturbance involving weapons. When they arrived, they found several of the children covered with bruises and arrested the woman after learning that she'd allegedly beaten them with a broom handle until it broke. A toxicology report found cocaine and marijuana in her system, according to court filings.
The children — two boys and three girls ranging in age from 3 to 10 — were placed in foster care at the time as a child protection case was opened. In May, a physician interviewed the kids, who described the alleged physical and sexual abuse.
In 2010, the woman won a $200,000 wrongful death settlement after her firstborn son was run over by a garbage truck while playing in the street. The incident happened in 2009, a few years after her family arrived in the Twin Cities from a Ghanaian refugee camp by way of Liberia, court records show.
Jane McNaught, an Edina-based clinical and forensic psychologist, said researchers have long known that most child abusers are themselves victims of mistreatment.
"It is very common among depressed women, who have too many children and not enough support — they feel overwhelmed, and they take out their anger and inability to cope on their children when they act out and do what normal children do," said McNaught, who specializes in sexual abuse cases but has not reviewed the woman's case.
Rich Gehrman, executive director of Safe Passage for Children of Minnesota, a watchdog group for child welfare, said the case raises questions about whether authorities could have intervened earlier to help the children.
"There was a 2017 report that sounds pretty serious that they ignored, that they didn't take action on," he said, while adding that it's impossible to know for sure, because many records are sealed. "It seems like at least as of this year, February, they took appropriate action."
Greg Gardner, also of Safe Passage, added: "From those documents it would be virtually impossible to know if something was or wasn't missed in the investigation."