Grandparents sidestep DHS in bid to protect girl
By JENNIFER JACOBS • firstname.lastname@example.org • July 27, 2009
Story City, Ia. – Three-year-olds Hailey Byers and Spencer Corson lived as brother and sister in a blended family – until Spencer was killed by what authorities say was violent child abuse.
A year later, Spencer’s homicide remains unsolved, and Hailey’s future hangs in the air: Will she end up back in the same home where Spencer was killed?
“To tell you the truth, we will never give her back,” said Hailey’s paternal grandfather, Bill Byers. “If we did, I know within a couple months she would be dead, and it would look like an accident just like the last one.”
Bill and Ann Byers are Hailey’s guardians – temporarily. Hailey’s father, Casey Byers, 22, asked his parents to agree to a promise before he was killed in action in Iraq: Keep my daughter safe. She was 5 months old when he died in June 2005.
The grandparents have taken unusual steps to try to keep their vow, including sidestepping the Iowa Department of Human Services when they believed child-abuse investigators weren’t doing enough.
DHS is charged under state and federal law with protecting children from abuse. Yet several high-profile child deaths and serious injuries have stirred debate over whether the agency is doing too much or too little to remove at-risk children. The most recent victim: Ethan Neiderbach, a Des Moines infant who was born with marijuana in his system and who suffered a broken arm before he was taken to the emergency room earlier this month with life-threatening injuries.
Custody hearings for Hailey have been postponed indefinitely pending a breakthrough in Spencer’s homicide case. Yet Hailey’s mother, Amanda Porter of Story City, is seeking Hailey’s return to her home.
Porter was the caretaker for Spencer, the son of her live-in boyfriend, when the child was hospitalized for a concussion in April 2008, and again for malnutrition in May 2008. She was also his caretaker in the hours before the unexplained head injury that killed him in June 2008. She has denied all wrongdoing.
But the death was ruled a homicide by a medical examiner, and the investigation is ongoing, Story County Attorney Stephen Holmes said.
Holmes said he couldn’t comment on Spencer’s case beyond saying child death cases can be tricky to solve.
“It’s very difficult when you have an injury that’s even a few days old to know or to even opine that those are crimes,” he said. “Crimes that are committed out of the sight of public rely on circumstantial evidence because you don’t have a witness, and those can be very difficult because you have to essentially reconstruct what happens.”
Since 2000, 64 deaths of children ages 6 and younger were ruled homicides in Iowa, according to the state medical examiner’s office. The Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation currently has seven unresolved child homicides dating to 2000. Of the seven, three are from 2009 and will likely be resolved, a DCI spokeswoman said last month.
Grandparents ask judge for emergency custody
Spencer was born with genetic abnormalities, including a cleft palate that required use of a feeding tube, relatives said. He was mentally delayed and couldn’t speak in sentences. He knew some sign language. He ran and played, stacked Lego bricks, did puzzles, was captivated by Elmo, and loved spaghetti and strawberries.
Hailey and Spencer began living as brother and sister when Porter, who is Hailey’s mother, and Stuart Corson, who is Spencer’s father, moved in together in July 2007. Both adults have criminal records, court records show. DHS has been involved with their household at various times, but no children have been removed, DHS records show.
Ann and Bill Byers didn’t think child-abuse investigators were doing enough about their suspicions that their granddaughter, Hailey, was in danger of abuse in fall 2007, when she was 2.
Knowing grandparents have no child custody rights in Iowa, they took a long shot – they went directly to a district court judge, working independently of DHS. DHS works almost exclusively within the juvenile court.
“We asked for (DHS workers’) help, and they refused,” said Ann Byers, a retired 27-year social worker. “They stated that we would have to wait to see what the judge’s decision was, and only at that time would they re-evaluate if service or their cooperation were needed.”
A Story County judge signed a court order granting emergency custody in September 2007 after the Byerses’ lawyer, Angela Campbell of Des Moines, presented troubling evidence the Byerses had documented.
When Bill Byers and a Nevada police officer knocked at Porter’s door with the court order to pick up Hailey, the girl appeared with a bruise circling one eye. Porter said Hailey fell and hit a table.
A month later, a DHS report concluded that Porter’s home in Story City was safe. Porter used that report as evidence in a hearing in April 2008, and the district court ordered Hailey, then 3, be returned to Porter. But the judge gave Ann and Bill Byers visitation on the first five days of each month and ordered DHS to grant them access to any records on “Amanda (Porter) and/or Hailey.”
Spencer dies 3 days before DHS hearing
Two months later, the other toddler in Porter’s care, Spencer, was dead.
A state medical examiner found that the death was a homicide, caused by “abusive head trauma” and “assault by another.”
Spencer and Porter were at the Nevada home of Deb Smith, Porter’s mother, on June 23 when paramedics dispatched by a 911 call found him unresponsive, records show. Spencer was flown by helicopter to Blank Children’s Hospital in Des Moines, but he was brain dead, according to his family. He was taken off life support the next day.
Ann and Bill Byers didn’t know that the little boy living with their granddaughter had died until Bill pulled up the MySpace page of Stuart Corson, Spencer’s father, and read: “My little guy is gone forever.”
DHS staff didn’t mention the death to the Byerses, they said. The Byerses acknowledge they were not related to Spencer, but pointed out that they had part-time custody of a girl the same age living in the same household.
Nor did DHS tell the grandparents that the death launched a child-abuse investigation into Porter and Corson’s home, or that there had been other abuse investigations in the months before Spencer was killed. DHS was looking into a severe concussion that Spencer sustained in May 2008, when he was flown by helicopter from Ames to Blank Children’s Hospital in Des Moines; the second time was for malnutrition, records show.
DHS workers didn’t interview the Byerses during any of the investigations into abuse against Spencer, even though his caretaker, Porter, had lived with them for a year and a half, and they’d made past reports about their concerns about her treatment of Hailey.
The Byerses say DHS gave their lawyer copies of Spencer’s medical records, but never complied with the court order regarding release of documents when they asked for DHS reports on investigations into other problems in Hailey’s home. DHS officials maintain they complied with the court order, a spokesman said.
Unbeknownst to the Byerses, a hearing was scheduled for late June 2008 to consider declaring Spencer a child in need of assistance, a status that gives the state more control over a child’s welfare.
Spencer died three days before the hearing.
Byerses say others told DHS of suspicions, too
Stunned by Spencer’s death and worried about Hailey’s safety, the Byerses called authorities. Nevada Police Chief Mike Tupper and DHS child protective worker Jennifer Welton would say little except that the death was under investigation, according to the Byerses.
At the hospital, medical staff observed bruises and a bump on Spencer’s head, a DHS report states. Porter and Corson told DHS “that two days ago he ran into the computer desk in the kitchen,” the report says. “It was reported that the child has a seizure disorder of some sort, but the family had very little information. It was reported that the child had five seizures today and was very sleepy.” They did not seek treatment for the seizures, the DHS report states.
The report, written by Welton, continues: “The bruising appeared inconsistent. … The parents showed very little emotion/reaction. It is not likely that the child will survive.”
During the death investigation, DHS didn’t place Hailey with the Byerses, who by that time had sold their home in Schleswig and had moved to Texas. Instead, DHS placed Hailey with her maternal grandmother, Smith.
The Byerses believe that violated the court order that gave them guardianship when Hailey wasn’t with her mother.
Nine days after Spencer’s death, Bill Byers did an Internet search and found a news report that quoted Spencer’s maternal grandmother, Dianna Rivera-Belle of Ames, saying she had previously reported suspicions of abuse to DHS.
“We realized we weren’t the only ones saying, ‘Help,’ ” said Bill Byers, a former Iowa corrections officer.
Bill Byers called the police chief again. Tupper told him the comments were the result of “disgruntled relatives,” according to Bill Byers. Tupper said tests were being done and that they’d take four to six weeks.
The Byerses, frantic now, called their lawyer, who went before Story County Judge William Pattinson the same day. Pattinson ruled “there is some legitimate concern” Hailey would be in danger at her mother’s home, and ordered temporary custody of Hailey to the Byerses.
Porter has another baby; death still unresolved
Two weeks after Spencer was killed, Porter gave birth to a daughter.
DHS arranged for Erika Corson, now a year old, to live with her paternal grandmother, Tina Meldrem, whose mobile home in Story City is just a few doors down from Porter and Corson’s trailer.
“We’re down there all the time,” Porter said in a short interview last month as she mowed her lawn.
Stuart Corson, who is Erika’s father, has been grieving deeply for his son, said Corson’s mother.
“He loved that boy like nobody’s business, and it’s killing him,” Meldrem said.
Meldrem believes Ann and Bill Byers exaggerated their reports of possible child abuse. “They are unreal on what they’ve said,” she said. “The thing with the Byerses, they started the custody thing a long time ago because their son died in Iraq. They’re trying to live their life through their granddaughter.”
Meldrem defended Porter.
“There’s no one in my family that believes it was Amanda,” Meldrem said. “I’ve never heard Amanda raise her voice to any of the kids, let alone hitting them.”
However, Porter’s mother, Smith, told DHS a slightly different story.
“Deb stated that Amanda yells when she is stressed and she knows that right now they are having some financial difficulty and her pregnancy is difficult,” stated a report from June 2008, shortly after Spencer’s death.
In one court order, Story County Judge Dale Ruigh wrote: “No doubt exists that (Hailey) is presently safe in her grandparents’ care. … The court cannot determine if she will be safe in the care of her mother, despite the best efforts of third parties visiting her home.”
Today, after months of play therapy, Bill Byers said of his granddaughter, “She’s pretty content that she’s safe. She’s happy, she sings, she’s a normal little kid again.”
Porter and Corson hope to get Hailey back soon, Meldrem said.
“She’s never met her little sister,” Meldrem said, referring to Erika. As for Porter and Corson, she said: “They’re just as wonderful around her as they were around Spencer and Hailey.”
2003: Amanda Porter Is convicted of felony kidnapping/child stealing in Woodbury County.
2007: Stuart Corson Is charged with first-offense OWI and, later that year, fourth-degree theft.
JAN. 16, 2005: Hailey Byers is born to Amanda Porter and Casey Byers.
MAY 2, 2005: Spencer Corson is born to Jessica Rivera and Stuart Corson.
JUNE 11, 2005: Byers is killed in Iraq.
JANUARY 2006: Porter asks Casey Byers’ parents, Ann and Bill Byers of Schleswig, if they can take in Hailey. The Byerses learn she has not been to a doctor and needs all her immunizations. Porter moves in soon after.
JUNE 2006: Iowa Department of Human Services investigators document a child abuse finding against Spencer’s mother, Rivera, after she fails to provide 1-year-old Spencer with adequate food. She later gives full custody to Corson.
OCTOBER 2006: Ann and Bill Byers sell their house, buy a recreational vehicle, and take Hailey and Porter with them to winter in Texas.
JUNE 2007: The Byerses, living in a cabin in Nebraska, decide to winter in Texas again. After giving shelter to an unemployed Porter for a year and a half, they offer to buy her and Hailey a house in the Midwest, but tell Porter she’ll need to get a job. Porter moves out.
JULY 2007: The Byerses keep in contact with Porter, who grants visits with Hailey. Three times they take the 2-year-old to the hospital for abscesses due to prolonged contact with wet, soiled diapers. The first time, Hailey requires an IV.
LATE JULY 2007: Porter meets Corson of Story City and moves in with him and his 2-year-old son, Spencer.
SEPTEMBER 2007: The Byerses initiate a welfare check with Nevada police to see if Hailey is healthy. A certified letter to Porter’s address is returned undelivered. The Byerses seek emergency custody. Their lawyer presents Judge Dale Ruigh with the Byers’ documentation of perceived neglect and abuse. Armed with Ruigh’s court order for custody, the Byerses find Hailey, who has a black eye. Porter says she fell and hit a table, relatives say.
LATE SEPTEMBER 2007: Hailey is no longer toilet trained and shows other behavior problems, the Byerses say. A medical exam shows no physical evidence of sexual abuse, they say.
APRIL 7, 2008: A DHS report says that Porter’s home is safe, and Judge William Ostlund transfers back custody of Hailey. But he gives the Byerses visitation, court records show.
APRIL 16, 2008: Spencer suffers a concussion and is flown by helicopter from Ames to Blank Children’s Hospital in Des Moines. DHS concludes an unknown person failed to provide Spencer with proper supervision and calls the child abuse allegation founded, a DHS report states. The Byerses are not told. Safety services through Youth and Shelter Services in Ames begin.
MAY 1, 2008: Ann and Bill Byers pick up Hailey for their first court-ordered five-day visitation and take her to their Nebraska cabin. She is unusually quiet and inactive, they write in their journal. On the trip back to Ames, they say she cried and said she didn’t want to go home.
MAY 28, 2008: Spencer, 3, is hospitalized for five days for malnutrition. Another abuse investigation begins, and a child-in-need-of-assistance hearing is set. Neither Corson nor Rivera shows up for the hearing, so it is moved to June 27, 2008.
JUNE 23, 2008: Spencer, unresponsive due to a head injury, is again life-flighted. A DHS child abuse investigation begins.
JUNE 24, 2008: Spencer dies at 12:30 p.m.
JUNE 27, 2008: Bill Byers learns of Spencer’s death from Corson’s MySpace page.
JULY 1, 2008: The Byerses pick up Hailey for their five-day visitation. Porter isn’t there, but Corson hands over the girl.
JULY 3, 2008: Judge William Pattinson rules “there is some legitimate concern” Hailey would be in danger if she’s returned to her mother’s home, and orders Hailey to temporarily remain with the Byerses.
JULY 12, 2008: Porter gives birth to Erika Corson. Two days later, DHS decides there’s no basis to request that a judge remove the baby at that time, a DHS report states.
JULY 22, 2008: DHS worker Jennifer Welton can’t confirm abuse in connection with Spencer’s death and “no person is named responsible,” according to her report, signed by her supervisor, Kathy Doyle of the Ames office.
AUG. 11, 2008: Judge Gary McMinimee orders that Hailey be returned to Porter, but postpones the effective date.
SEPT. 26, 2008: Judge Dale Ruigh orders that Ann and Bill Byers keep custody of Hailey until a guardianship trial takes place, court records show. The trial has been postponed indefinitely.
OCTOBER 2008: An autopsy by Polk County Medical Examiner Greg Schmunk concludes Spencer’s death was caused by “abusive head injury” during an “assault by another.”
TODAY: No charges have been filed in connection with Spencer’s death. Hailey remains with the Byerses, who now live in Texas.