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Clarksville DHS worker charged with fondling girl, 13

By JAKE LOWARY • The Leaf-Chronicle • December 15, 2009

A Clarksville day care owner and DHS worker was charged Tuesday with forcibly fondling a 13-year-old girl, police reports and court records show.

Michael McElroy Monix, 48, who gave a 1021 Tylertown Road address, was arrested and charged Monday with two counts of sexual battery and one count of sexual battery by an authority figure, on at least one occasion working in his official capacity.

Monix was arrested on a sealed indictment Tuesday, alleging that in November and December 2008 he forcibly fondled the girl, who, according to an indictment, was under his supervisory authority.

According to the indictment returned by the grand jury this month, Monix “used his position of trust … to accomplish sexual contact.”

Monix is an employee with the Tennessee Department of Human Services. Police identified Monix as a social worker in an arrest report.

Monix was released from jail Tuesday, and showed up to his job with DHS on Wednesday and immediately requested for state-paid vacation, which he was granted, according to Leaf-Chronicle news partner WSMV, Channel 4.

DHS officials are reviewing the case, but have not put Monix on suspension or unpaid leave.

Kingsport man avoids death penalty in 2005 murder of toddler

By Kacie Breeding

BLOUNTVILLE — A Kingsport man who potentially faced the death penalty if found guilty of killing his girlfriend’s toddler son has agreed to a last-minute plea deal.

Shawn Anthony Mullins, 27, was headed to trial Monday morning on charges of first-degree felony murder and aggravated child abuse and neglect stemming from the 2005 death of 2-year-old Christopher David Smith by means of severe physical abuse.

Mullins was 22 on March 30, 2005, when Heather Collins found her 2-year-old son unresponsive at a friend’s home on Robin Lane where the couple had been staying.

At the time, Mullins had been left alone with the boy for about two hours, according to investigators.

Christopher reportedly was suffering from cardiac arrest and was rushed to a local hospital, where he later died.

Prior to Christopher’s death, Mullins and Collins had been scheduled to meet with a Department of Children’s Services worker on April 2, 2005, to discuss allegations of child abuse. Those complaints were filed with the Kingsport Police Department in February and March of that year by family of the boy’s father.

Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office Detective Lt. Bobby Russell told the Times-News in 2005 that the boy had been beaten repeatedly, suffering multiple broken bones and bruises that were in various stages of healing.

On Monday, Sullivan County Assistant District Attorney Barry Staubus advised the judge if the case had gone to trial, the evidence would show the boy suffered injuries to his heart, kidney and brain in addition to a broken arm and leg.

Staubus said testimony would have shown evidence that Mullins was jealous of the boy.

According to court records, when the boy cried Mullins would say he “‘wished the little (expletive) would die” and cover his mouth in an attempt to make him stop.

Mullins was accused of picking Christopher up by his head; throwing him into his crib; striking him with his fist, palm and the back of his hand; kicking him in the back and knocking him to the ground; and placing a bucket over his head and striking the bucket as the boy walked around, according to court documents.

Additionally, Mullins was accused of forcing Christopher to inhale marijuana smoke and consume alcohol, according to court documents.

A report prosecutors received Thursday from one of their own expert witnesses “changed the evidence that would be presented to the jury, and as a result we entered this plea,” said Staubus.

The late pathology report “put some serious questions into the state’s timeline,” said Mullins’ attorney, John Eldridge.

As a result, the state allowed Mullins to enter Alford, or “best interest,” pleas to second-degree murder and aggravated child abuse in exchange for 30 years in prison with 100 percent service.

“We’re pleased with the outcome. And I think our client, Shawn Mullins, is quite resolved and glad that this episode is over,” Eldridge said.

Staubus said he wasn’t particularly pleased with it, but added that he was glad the plea will “hold Mr. Mullins accountable.”

Advocates question whether foster kids should be placed close to home


DCS tries to balance safety with familiarity


By Janell Ross • THE TENNESSEAN • August 9, 2009

In the case of Stevie Noelle Milburn, a 15-year-old Dyersburg, Tenn., girl who loved soccer, dancing and singing, some facts aren’t in dispute.

Two weeks ago, she accused her father of some sort of abuse. Tennessee Department of Children’s Services caseworkers consulted Stevie, her father and police and arranged for her to stay with family friends two doors away.

Three days after Stevie’s move, Christopher Milburn, 34, walked down the street to shoot and kill his daughter and his neighbor. A short distance away, he took his own life. People in the city of 17,000 about 80 miles northwest of Memphis raised money so Stevie’s mother could take her body home to Oregon.

But what former foster children and those who knew Stevie — and some who didn’t — are debating is the wisdom of placing a child at the center of an abuse investigation in a home so close to her accused abuser.

“Were the right decisions made in this case? I don’t pretend to have any of those answers,” said the Rev. Gary Meade, pastor of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Dyersburg, the church Stevie’s caretakers attended. Meade also is a former lawyer and foster father who adopted two children.

“This story highlights the reality of social work. There are laws and there are policies. The challenge is in how those laws and policies intersect with real life.”

Some answers lie in a collection of state laws, Department of Children’s Services policies and practices endorsed by the National Association of Public Child Welfare Workers. Together, they call for most parents to be consulted about places where their children can stay while investigations are under way and for children to be placed in homes near their families.

But some things will never be known because state law shields abuse investigations like Stevie’s from public view.

Girl wasn’t in foster care

In Tennessee, 5,333 children were in state custody at the end of June. There are 11,770 open investigations, some of which involve children, like Stevie, who have not been legally removed from their parents’ custody but are living with relatives or friends under the terms of what’s called an “immediate protection agreement.”

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She was not in foster care, said Rob Johnson, spokesman for the Department of Children’s Services.

The Tennessee Department of Children’s Services does not regularly track the number of children living under an immediate protection agreement, said Stacy Miller, the agency’s general counsel. The Tennessean requested a review of case files involving immediate protection agreements between July 2008 and July 2009. It revealed one death — a child drowned while with a babysitter. That case is under investigation.

Johnson said the department will review its actions in Stevie’s case. And, as with every child’s death in Tennessee, a county health department-led team will review her death to determine if it was, in any way, preventable.

As a standard part of the initial investigation into unsubstantiated allegations like Stevie’s, the department often works with the family and child to identify a safe, neutral space where the child might stay for at least a short time. It’s a process that happens quickly but carefully, said Carla Aaron, the Department of Children’s Services executive director for child safety.

Caseworkers make a number of observations about birth and host families, the child and his parents’ safety and mental stability as well as any criminal records of the people involved. State records show Christopher Milburn had no Tennessee arrests and served no time in prison here.

“If we thought there was danger, we would not go down the road of doing an IPA,” Aaron said. “We might pursue protective custody. … In this case, we had no indication that this was a dangerous situation at all.”

Protective custody gives the state at least temporary custody of a child and in most cases will lead to a placement in a foster home. If family issues can’t be resolved or corrected, it can lead to years in foster care or, ultimately, adoption.

DCS practice criticized

Nashville attorney Natasha Blackshear, an alumna of the New York state foster care system, said she doesn’t believe the practice of placing children in their home communities — either for the night or for years — is best.

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“I think that that’s one of those policies that’s been made with a middle-class, blond-haired, blue-eyed child in mind,” said Blackshear, who serves on the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth. “The child that benefits from that policy comes from a middle-class neighborhood with good schools or is the kind of child that people are looking to adopt.

“But that’s not the story with most of the kids that come into the system. A lot of them come from the ghetto, from neighborhoods where the trouble isn’t just in their home and from bad schools.”

Blackshear said the close-to-home approach to placements is part of the reason only 25 percent of the children in state custody have earned a high school diploma or equivalent or are working by their 18th birthday. And, when parents are accused of abuse, Blackshear believes that some additional care and caution need to be taken to protect children, she said.

“Even when there are unproven accusations, it does seem like some additional caution, more than two doors’ distance, might be a good idea,” she said.

Ex-foster kids weigh in

There are benefits to keeping foster children near the schools, stores, gathering places and perhaps places of worship they know, said Ira Lustbader, associate director of Children’s Rights, a New York-based nonprofit child advocacy agency. The agency in the late 1990s brought a civil rights suit against Tennessee over the state’s treatment of children in its care.

“Safety trumps everything and has to come first,” Lustbader said. “But it’s an important goal because the experience of being removed from one’s home and placed in foster care is in itself traumatic, and you don’t want to expose that child to any additional trauma.”

Lustbader said there is not enough publicly available information about the Dyersburg case to assess whether the appropriate balance was struck between Stevie’s emotional and physical safety needs.

Some former foster children agree with the idea that children in state care belong closer to their families of origin. Krista Noel said she was 13 when false allegations of sexual abuse led the Department of Children’s Services to remove her sister and her from their homeless mother’s custody.

Noel’s sister, then a student at Hume-Fogg High School, asked to be placed in a home in Nashville so that she could continue attending the magnet school. Noel says she wasn’t asked where she wanted to go and ended up in Baxter, Tenn., about 70 miles east of Nashville.

“Even though DCS was taking me, had I had a say, I would have wanted to stay in Nashville,” said Noel, 24, an expectant mother and waitress. “I would have already known my community and I wouldn’t have felt so like I was alone.

“Not that race is so much an issue, but I’m mixed with black and white. In Baxter, there’s not that many black people.”

Today, she serves on the Tennessee Youth Advisory Council, which works to give children in the state system a voice.

“Even now, not many kids have a choice or a say in where they are placed,” Noel said. “Children who know their rights are able to advocate for themselves. But in most cases, youth don’t know what’s going on. They don’t know what rights they have.”

Teen slain by father was placed in foster home nearby; neighbors question agency’s decision

Travis Loller August 4th, 2009

Slain teen’s placement in foster home questioned

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — When the 15-year-old girl accused her father of abusing her, she was placed in a foster home while the allegations were investigated. That home was just two doors down.

A week later, the girl’s father fatally shot her and her foster father before killing himself in the northwestern Tennessee community of Dyersburg. Now people are questioning the actions of the state agency responsible for protecting children from abuse and neglect.

Officials at the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services insist there was nothing unusual about placing the teenager in a house less than 200 feet from the father she accused of abuse.

Agency spokesman Rob Johnson would not speak specifically about the case, citing the privacy of surviving relatives, but he did say the department is looking into how the matter was handled.

Authorities would not specify the nature of the abuse. Police are still investigating both the shootings and the girl’s allegations.

When children bring accusations of abuse, he said, the department tries to place them where they will be comfortable.

“When these things happen, it’s not like we spirit them away,” he said. “The parents know where the kids are … unless there’s some extreme case, an indication that something could befall the child.”

Christopher Milburn, 34, did not have a criminal history.

Neighbor Frank Hipps said Milburn was good friends with the foster father, 46-year-old Todd Randolph. The two had even vacationed together in Las Vegas.

Neighbor Charles Wootton, who called 911, recalled hearing gunshots Sunday night and seeing Randolph lying in his yard across the street. A neighbor who was a nurse tried to perform CPR while holding a towel to the bullet wound in the man’s neck, he said.

Randolph’s wife, Susan, had been shot as well and was slumped over on the porch. She was taken to the hospital and released the following day. Wootton did not enter the house where the girl was slain.

When a child is placed in a temporary home, all parties must sign a protection agreement, Johnson said. The details of the agreements are different in each case, and he would not disclose what was in this one.

“The goal is to get the child out of the home while the allegations are being investigated,” Johnson said. “Sometimes the allegations aren’t true.”

Ira Lustbader is associate director of Children’s Rights, a nonprofit group that sued the state in 2000 over how the Department of Children’s Services was run. In general, he said, when a child is taken from a home, that child’s safety is the top concern.

“It is good to keep a child within the community so they can retain important relationships,” he said. But “safety trumps everything.”

Frank Hipps was less circumspect.

“That kid shouldn’t have been in that house,” he said. “This might have been preventable if she had been placed with foster parents out of the community.”

State Rep. Sherry Jones, a Nashville Democrat who leads a legislative committee on children and youth, said the panel plans to look into allegations that child-welfare officials are not removing children from dangerous situations.

“It’s ridiculous to place a child two doors down when the department is doing an investigation,” she said. “They’re not doing what they need to do to keep children safe.”

8-Year-Old Died Of Twine Strangulation


Child Sent To Barn For Punishment, Later Found Hanging From Tree

Reported by Sara Dorsey

POSTED: 10:54 pm CDT May 25, 2009

UPDATED: 6:59 pm CDT May 27, 2009

MURFREESBORO, Tenn. — A foster child who was being raised by a Rutherford County deputy and his family was found dead on Monday night hanging from a tree.

Police said Alex Cotten, 8, was found hanging from a tree during a fishing incident while his two brothers, foster father — who’s a reserve deputy — and another full-time deputy were with him.

“I just want questions answered, what’s going on, what happened to my son,” said Alex’s biological mother, Christy Kennedy, who has been fighting to regain custody of her three children. The boys have been in foster care for two-and-a-half years.

Kennedy received news Monday night that her middle child was dead.

“The phone call was (that) he got in a car wreck,” she said. “And then later on, when I got to the hospital, the foster family told me otherwise.”

Kennedy said the foster family told her Alex was killed in a hay baling incident. A Rutherford County incident report said he disappeared at a pond during a fishing trip after his foster father, Cam Sandstrom, made him go to the barn as punishment for being hyperactive.

The report said Alex’s foster grandfather, Sid Sandstrom, arrived 15 minutes later and found the boy hanging from a tree by bailing twine. Investigators are wondering if the child killed himself.

“It would be odd for a child that young (to commit suicide), but you never know what motivates a child or what they’re thinking,” said Dan Goodwin of the Rutherford County Sheriff’s Department. “It could’ve been an accident. We don’t know. It could’ve been intentional.”

The official cause of death was strangulation from the twine. There were no other injuries.

“I’m not a psychiatrist, but my understanding is, is that an 8-year-old is not capable of forming the intent necessary to take their own life,” said medical examiner Dr. Bruce Levy. “At this point, the manner of death is still pending, because we don’t know if we’re dealing with an accident or something else … The first thing we’re going to do, obviously, is toxicology.”

DCS said because of the ongoing investigation, the boys are being removed from the house — a routine precaution. A Department of Children and Family Services representative said Alex’s brothers are now staying with extended family of their foster parents.

The Sandstroms are in the process of adopting the boys, the family said.

Vickie Cotten, Alex’s biological grandmother, said she’s concerned about the other two boys.

“They weren’t watching,” said Cotten. “Would it have happened if they would’ve been watching him?”

Deputies said the case will be investigated as a homicide until details lead them in a different direction. One part of the investigation into Alex’s death will focus on the medication he was taking for ADHD and if it was a factor in his death.

The three boys’ father had previously signed over his parental rights. Kennedy had her parental rights terminated by a judge last week.


Child’s Strangulation Death Ruled Accidental


8-Year-Old Boy May Have Been Swinging With Rope Got Tied Around Neck

Reported by Jeremy Finley

POSTED: 4:59 pm CDT July 17, 2009

UPDATED: 7:01 pm CDT July 17, 2009

MURFREESBORO, Tenn. — New details may lift a shadow of doubt that has been hanging over a foster family in Rutherford County.

A child in the custody of a foster family died from a hanging in late May, but the medical investigation came to the conclusion that the death was a tragic accident.

The state’s chief medical examiner, Dr. Bruce Levy, told the Channel 4 I-Team that 8-year-old Alex Cotten’s death in late May was a “tragic, accidental death.”

Cotten and his brothers went to live with his foster family, the Sandstroms, after investigators found their biological parents were not providing the children with enough food.

Alex’s father gave up his parental rights, and his mother later lost hers the week before the child died.

Just before his body was found, Alex had been reprimanded by his foster father, leading to the question of if the boy had taken his own life.

The medical examiner says no.

“We literally believe he was just playing with a rope like kids might do and just got caught in this tragic situation,” said Levy.

Levy asked Rutherford County investigators to go back to the scene. While they were there, they discovered the twine rope had knots in it and was tied to the tree with piece of wood, like a makeshift swing. But there were no knots to indicate a noose.

“We believe while he was swinging that the rope tangled around his neck. It’s just tragic,” said Levy.

Levy believes the foster family is in no way to blame for the boy’s death.

“I think understanding that this is a tragic accident is important. In my experience, I’m not sure that these people will feel better because of it because it’s a tragic loss either way,” said Levy.

The Sandstrom family didn’t want to comment but said they were in the process of adopting Alex and his brothers when the incident happened.

A Rutherford County Sheriff’s Department representative said this case isn’t yet closed

Woman charged in second baby death


Lawyer awaits sleep test results


By Lola Alapo (Contact)

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The first time, the death of an 11-day-old baby girl while sleeping with her mother was ruled a tragedy and an accident, authorities said.

But the second time a child of Sara Mynatt, 27, died while allegedly sleeping with her — this time, a 4-month-old boy — prosecutors charged her with reckless homicide.

Criminal Court Judge Richard Baumgartner on Wednesday set an Oct. 15 hearing on whether details from the death of Mynatt’s first child would be admissible at her trial.

Mynatt is accused of rolling over on 4-month-old Jaden Jerman on Oct. 28, 2007, while Mynatt was sleeping.

The first child, 11-day-old Lily Mynatt, died Feb. 3, 2006. The death was ruled as accidental asphyxiation by the Knox County medical examiner, said Assistant District Attorney General Steve Sword, who is prosecuting the case.

Since then, Mynatt has had a third child, and the Department of Children’s Services took the baby from Mynatt at the hospital and placed it in foster care, said her attorney, Assistant Knox County Public Defender Bob Edwards.

Mynatt also is known as Sara McCurry.

Edwards said he is awaiting results of a sleep study that will show whether the woman has a neurological disorder, “nocturnal seizures,” that is causing a sleep problem.

“The accusation is (Mynatt) slept with the babies in bed, but we’re not ready to admit that,” Edwards said.

Mynatt is free in lieu of $20,000 bond, he said.

Lola Alapo may be reached at 865-342-6376.


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