EXCLUSIVE: Mother believes Missouri's child protection system failed her son

Lucas Webb died from blunt force trauma

HOLT, Mo. - The mother of a 4-year-old boy who died last year insists Missouri's child protection system failed both her and her son.

Brooke Barnes spoke exclusively to the 41 Action News Investigators following the release of her son's autopsy report.

Lucas Webb died in October of 2012 from blunt force trauma to his abdomen. Prosecutors charged Lucas' step-mother, Melissa Webb, and Lucas' dad, Justin Webb, in his death. They believe Melissa Webb kicked Lucas in the stomach and that both parents failed to get him medical treatment.

The medical examiner testified in court that Lucas Webb had dozens of bruises and cuts all over his body, damage to his internal organs and injuries, like several broken ribs, that were weeks old.

Barnes wants to know why -- despite several calls to the abuse hotline -- a doctor never examined her son.

"He was a great kid. I couldn't have asked for a better kid. And boy did he ... he hung on every word I said. If I said the sky was purple ... the sky was purple," an emotional Brooke Barnes said.

"It just ... it's hard. Because he loved me and I know he loved me ... and I know that he hurt," she continued.

Barnes is no stranger to the Missouri Department of Social Services, having had two calls on herself. Later, Social Services removed Lucas from her home due to concerns about a boyfriend living in the home.

But Barnes believes the system that said it was protecting Lucas failed him. She showed the 41 Action News Investigators pictures she took of bruises on his body when she was able to see him.

After Lucas returned home with bruises on him in 2009, Brooke made a report to the child abuse hotline.

DSS records show after interviewing Justin Webb, the case worker dismissed the allegations. Webb told the investigator Lucas woke up in the middle of the night, slipped, and fell into a dresser.

The worker notes in the file that the "injuries were consistent with an accident."

Brooke disagreed with the results of that investigation.

"Slipped on a sack of socks and hit a dresser. I said, ‘Really? I don't think so,'" Barnes said.

Despite additional calls from Lucas' daycare to the hotline concerning bruising, DSS documents never show case workers consulted a doctor about Lucas' injuries. They also did not ask for documentation that Lucas had a condition that caused him to easily bruise, as his dad claimed.

Brooke doesn't understand why no one took Lucas to a doctor or removed him from the home.

"I just don't know why nobody took him and nobody stopped it. Nobody," Barnes said.

We contacted the attorneys for both Melissa and Justin Webb. They both declined our invitation to speak about the charges facing their clients.

Abuse focus of clinic at Children's Mercy Hospital

The Department of Social Services told 41 Action News they provide their employees regular training about identifying child abuse and encourage workers to consult medical experts.

However, there is no legal requirement for a case worker to consult a doctor about a child hotlined for physical or sexual abuse.  It is left to each case worker's discretion even though there are clinics specially designed to provide an unbiased resource to investigate child abuse based on medical evidence.

Here is a link to the Missouri Department of Social Services policy for consulting medical experts: http://on.mo.gov/12WAYUA

One of those specially designed clinics is at Children's Mercy Hospital. The doctors at the hospital's "SCAN" clinic handle child abuse cases exclusively. They see more than 3,000 children each year.

However, some children never make their way to these experts.

"Not every child is automatically brought to us. I think they probably should be ... but that's not how the system is set up right now," Dr. Jim Anderst, a physician in Children's Mercy Hospital's SCAN clinic, said.

Dr. Anderst told 41 Action News medically examining a child can help identify overlooked abuse. He also said many times medical evidence has also helped disprove suspected abuse.

Dr. Anderst added that some child welfare investigators don't have the medical training to understand if something is an accident or not.

"If we are not accessed appropriately, I don't know what happens to those cases. I fear there are people in jail who don't belong there and those sorts of things. Conversely, in the other case, I think kids are returned home and the abuse continues," Dr. Anderst said.

To help bridge that gap in medical knowledge, Dr. Anderst created an app that is available as a DVD and for tablets and smart phones.

Investigators can input a child's injury and the app shows them how the injury could have occurred. That can help investigators decide if the details told to them about how the injury happened are consistent with how, medically, the accident would have to happen.

In turn, investigators can ask better follow up questions. The app is now being used in 200 departments in the United States and in 13 other countries.

"I can't go into a house and interview a parent or interrogate people, but they can. So if we can make them better at that, that's what we want to do," Dr. Anderst said.

State reviews Lucas Webb's case

Additional questions weren't asked in Lucas' case. The Missouri Department of Social Services conducted a review of Lucas' file and determined department policy was not followed.

Specifically, a spokeswoman for the department told 41 Action News that the investigating worker did not address all allegations of abuse, did not review Lucas' prior history of contact with the department and did not interview Lucas alone.

RELATED | DSS emails shed light on boy's death http://bit.ly/12W8kms

DSS said at least two employees lost their jobs because of errors surrounding Lucas' case. She also told us the department is developing a tool to better assist workers and their supervisors in asking the right questions.

RELATED | Two Department of Social Services employees fired after 4-year-old's death http://bit.ly/19XnlVf

Barnes said that's little consolation for her enormous loss.

"My heart is gone! Lucas was my world," cried Barnes.
 

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