The attorney for the mother of a 19-month-old boy who died last week in a Lawrence foster home says an alarm should have sounded when her medically fragile son stopped breathing.
"It's louder, much louder, than a smoke detector," said Scott Wasserman, a lawyer representing Tanya Jones, the Paola woman whose son, Dominic Matz, died Feb. 15.
But the alarm didn't go off. And that, he said, can only mean one of two things: Either the foster parents didn't know how to hook up the alarm or they somehow turned it off.
"We're not blaming the foster parents," Wasserman said. "But we are saying that if they had been using the machine properly, Dominic would be alive today."
He added: "And if Dominic had been left in his mother's care, a mother who knew how to use the machine, he would be alive today."
Repeated attempts to interview Jones last week were unsuccessful.
Jones has said her son suffered from CHARGE syndrome, a genetic condition that causes growth retardation, heart defects and deafness.
The boy, who was deaf, was admitted Jan. 7 to Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Mo., after his mother became concerned he was having trouble breathing. At the time, Dominic weighed 13 pounds, 10 ounces.
He was discharged from the hospital Feb. 10 and placed in a Lawrence foster home. He died five days later.
State officials aren't saying what happened.
"Our hands are tied by confidentiality," said Sandra Hazlett, director of children and family services at the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services.
But others familiar with the case said they doubted the foster family did anything wrong.
"These are people who have opened their hearts to these kids for almost 20 years. They're some of the best, most experienced foster parents in the state," said a woman who contacted the Journal-World and spoke on condition anonymity.
Confidentiality laws are intended to protect the privacy of children in foster care. But many in the child welfare system say the laws often are used to cover up mistakes.
"There's a lot of pressure to get these kids placed and to keep costs down, so, yeah, mistakes are going to be made," said Susan Moore, a foster parent in Johnson County. "Those mistakes are going to be covered up. I mean, look what happened in the Brian Edgar case."
Moore was referring to the case of a 9-year-old boy who died Dec. 29, 2002, in Kansas City, Kan., after his adoptive parents, in an attempt to discipline him, bound him head to toe in duct tape and stuffed a sock in his mouth.
Brian Edgar's mother, Christy Edgar, later pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and child abuse. Brian's father, Neil Edgar, and a baby sitter, Chasity Boyd, were tried and convicted. All three are serving life sentences.
Before being adopted, Brian Edgar had been in foster care.
Because of confidentiality, neither the reasons for Brian Edgar's being in foster care nor the decisions leading up to Neil and Christy Edgar being deemed fit for adoption has been made public.
"When a kid in the system dies, whether it's Brian Edgar or the little boy in Lawrence, every record ought to be open to examination and the results of that examination ought to be made public," Moore said. "The system ought to be about protecting kids, not about protecting itself."
Others who contacted the Journal-World last week disputed Wasserman's earlier claim reported in the newspaper that Dominic Matz was put in foster care shortly before being discharged from Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Mo.
Wasserman said he had misspoken, noting Matz had been in foster care for several weeks.
"He was in state custody, that's true," Wasserman said. "But his mother was with him every day until two or three days before he was discharged. At that point they wouldn't let her see him."
It's also true, Wasserman said, that Jones has at least two children living with grandparents in Missouri.
Jones is pregnant with twins and living with her fiance and her 3-year-old daughter in Paola.
Wasserman said he called the SRS Area Office in Overland Park on Monday, demanding to know how Matz had died.
Wasserman said a supervisor read from a log that showed the foster parents had checked on the boy at 3:30 a.m. Feb. 15 and he was doing well.
"But at 6 a.m. he was unresponsive and cold to the touch," Wasserman said. "An ambulance was called at 6:40 a.m. and at 6:48 a.m. he was declared dead."
Wasserman said he was investigating the 40-minute gap between the boy being found and the ambulance being called.
Friday, SRS' Hazlett said she was unaware of Wasserman speaking to an area-office supervisor.
"This is the first I've heard of that," she said.
Asked whether a supervisor had, in fact, shared such information, Hazlett replied: "I can't confirm or deny that it happened."
She confirmed SRS has offered to make public its file on Jones and her son if Jones would sign a release form.
"If the family would sign a release form and ask us to share it with the media, we would be happy to do that," Hazlett said.
Wasserman called the offer a "ruse" designed to make his clients appear uncooperative.
"Why should we sign a release when we don't know what's in the file?" he said. "Show us the file first. Let us see what's in there and then we'll decide whether to release it."
Hazlett said she would show Wasserman and Jones the file if they would come to Topeka.
"The information we would share would be limited to that generated by SRS," Hazlett said. "It would exclude information generated by a medical provider, for example."