Jakie Toole could not speak for himself.
He could not run for help.
The 5-year-old Meridian boy, whose case was one of more than 700 in 2019 investigated by frontline workers in Lauderdale County by early September this year, was nonverbal and unable to walk because of a medical condition.
By the time the Mississippi Department of Child Protection Services was notified of his disappearance, which triggered its investigation, police believe Jakie could have been dead for months.
Police found his body inside trash bags in the basement of a home on Crabapple Drive.
Three months later, questions remain about how Jakie died and why few seemed to notice he was missing.
“This child was defenseless,” Meridian Police Chief Benny Dubose said. “That’s what hurts. He did not have any recourse at all. He had to take whatever was dished out.”
After Jakie’s death, a team of reporters from The Meridian Star began examining how and when state agencies, law enforcement and community members get involved to protect some of the most vulnerable among us: suspected victims of child abuse or neglect.
While there were no open investigations in the months before he died, Jakie had a history with CPS years earlier, the agency said.
CPS is responsible for receiving, screening and investigating allegations of child abuse, neglect or exploitation.
Anyone – not just a doctor, psychologist, minister, school employee or law enforcement officer – can report concerns about a child through a centralized hotline, online app or e-reporting system.
“The way Mississippi statute is written, everyone in the state is a mandated reporter,” said Tonya Rogillio, the deputy commissioner for child welfare for CPS. “If they encounter a child that they have concerns about, they're required to report that to us.”
CPS staff have 90 minutes to enter all of the information, which goes to the county where the child is located, Rogillio said.
A history of reports
Information provided by CPS shows there were seven reports made to the agency’s hotline between January 2014 and November 2017 in which Jakie was either the reported victim or a member of the family cited in the reports.
All but two of the reports involved medical concerns or medical neglect concerns, the agency said.
CPS said that from January 2014 to September 2015, it provided services to help Jakie’s mother, Teasia Warren, get medical treatment for the child.
All of the reports were unsubstantiated and investigators found no evidence that the child was neglected, according to the agency.
“This was a low income mom who struggled with transportation and because he was special needs, he had extraordinary medical needs and a number of doctor’s appointments with different specialties,” Rogillio said. “She didn’t always get to those appointments and so we worked with her a number of times on securing transportation and keeping appointments.”
CPS said it had no contact with the family after 2017 – not until Jakie's mother reported him missing this year.
According to police, Warren left her children with a friend, Celeste Smith, in April 2019 and returned in May to check on them.
“The mother…stated that she had gone to Celeste (Smith) and asked where her child was and she told her that her child was with a relative of the owner of the Crabapple residence in Jackson, so she accepted that,” Dubose said.
Police said Warren told them that four months later, Smith called Warren and said she had been lying to her – that the last time Smith saw Jakie, she and the child had taken a nap, and Smith woke up to find a note saying the child was with Warren.
Warren filed a report with Meridian Police and they began an investigation to locate Jakie.
Days later, Smith directed them to the boy’s badly decomposed body, behind plywood covering an opening in the basement wall, police said.
Smith was charged with capital murder and child neglect and Warren was charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor.
According to police, Smith said the children were scalded by bathwater.
Investigators are skeptical of her account, due to evidence that does not completely support it, Dubose said.
He said Smith told police she removed Jakie from the tub and he would not stop crying so she struck him.
The autopsy report showed the child died from blunt force trauma, according to Lauderdale County Coroner Clayton Cobler.
No calls to police
While the children lived on Crabapple Drive, police said they were never called to the home and did not have any interactions with Smith or Warren.
Dubose said it appeared the children had not been receiving medical care.
“I’m not sure how he got lost to follow up in the medical system,” Rogillio said.
CPS said it was unaware Jakie was no longer in his mother’s care and attempted to locate him after Warren reported him missing.
Then, the agency learned he was dead.
“It’s like a flu that goes through this floor when something like that happens,” said Lea Anne Brandon, the director of communications for CPS. “Most of us really suffered through this one.”
If someone had noticed earlier that Jakie was missing and contacted the agency, it would have triggered an investigation, Rogillio said.
“We would have 24 hours to attempt to locate the child and if that child wasn’t located in 24 hours, we would continue looking. We would go to law enforcement, ask for help,” she said.
Alternatively, if someone reports abuse of a child and calls CPS, an investigation may result in the child being removed from the home, Rogillio said.
The case is assigned to a frontline worker, who may contact a youth court judge and request an order for immediate removal.
When a judge issues that order, the child is considered in foster care.
Working with families
As of Dec. 1, 190 children in Lauderdale County were in foster care, 55 more children than by the same time last year, according to CPS records.
“For about half of the children who are in foster care in Mississippi, they’re actually with a family member,” Rogillio said. “We have a pool of licensed foster parents in the state who have been through extensive background checks and training and that is where we place children temporarily while we work toward permanency for those children.”
Family members who take custody of the children are required to undergo the same background checks and licensure requirements as foster parents, according to CPS.
The child is returned to their family only if a court determines it is appropriate, Rogillio said.
Then, there is a 90-day home trial placement under close supervision.
CPS is required to be in the home at a minimum of every two weeks to ensure the child is safe.
“If the parents are not able to change their behavior in a meaningful and lasting way, then sometimes the parental rights are terminated and those children are put up for adoption,” Rogillio said.
CPS said it is focusing more on prevention – hoping to help families before an investigation is necessary.
“Even had we known that…mom was overwhelmed and we could have gotten involved and provided services to mom to say, ‘What would it take, what kind of support do you need to keep your child with you?’” Rogillio said.
In Lauderdale County, 16 frontline workers are responsible for handling investigations.
Records provided by CPS show that from Jan. 1 to Sept. 4, those workers completed 776 investigations in the county.
Dubose said, in his experience, CPS did not appear to have enough workers.
“I know the need far outweighs the people that are there to supply those needs,” he said.
Rogillio said she would like to hire three to four more workers to make the caseload more manageable.
“I think the current caseloads, although we still operate with a high level of quality, it adds more stress to our workers and contributes to the turnover because it is a high-stress job.”
On the front lines
The starting annual salary for a frontline worker with CPS is approximately $30,000, according to the agency.
“We are always recruiting and finding qualified applicants is difficult,” Rogillio said. “There is no getting around the fact that frontline CPS work, it’s basically a high-stress, low-pay job.”
Jessica Townsend of Philadelphia was a frontline worker in Neshoba County from 2011 to 2014.
Despite the number of cases, she said the work was evenly distributed and employees were able to keep up.
Townsend said she often found families in need of support and worked to connect them to resources.
“It’s not about taking peoples' kids. It's about helping families to be better to have what they need,” Townsend said.
The younger the child, the harder it is to determine if they have been a victim of abuse or neglect, she said.
“Be observant. Listen, if a child’s talking to you, especially small children,” Townsend said.
Of the 776 investigations conducted in Lauderdale County from January to September, 149 had at least one substantiated allegation, according to CPS records.
The highest number of substantiated allegations in the county was for physical neglect (158), followed by physical abuse (35), sexual abuse (25), emotional abuse (25) and medical neglect (18).
Although Rogillio said she was confident the agency correctly handled its prior investigations into the family, CPS is reviewing some of its unsubstantiated cases in light of Jakie’s death and the death of a 4-year-old Natchez girl in June.
Police said Armani Hill was severely beaten while in the care of her mother’s boyfriend, the Associated Press reported.
In a news release, CPS stated that an investigator was unable to substantiate earlier allegations of abuse and had repeated face-to-face visits with the family up until the month before Armani’s death.
Two workers and a supervisor were fired following an internal review, CPS said.
“What we’re doing is more stringent case reviews and we’re going back and reviewing investigations to find out, is there something we could have done differently,” Rogillio said.
Another state agency, the Mississippi Department of Human Services, appeared to have no involvement in Jakie’s case.
The agency provides childcare benefits for families and facilities.
Neither Celeste Smith nor Teasia Warren had applied for or were receiving benefits from the agency, according to Danny Blanton, the chief communications officer.
When someone applies for benefits, they must have an eligibility meeting and in many cases, they can do so online or over the phone, Blanton said.
In-home childcare benefits through DHS for special needs children became available in August.
The Mississippi State Department of Health monitors only licensed child care facilities with five children or more, according to Melissa Parker, the director of licensure.
According to police, Jakie and his brother were the only children living in the home from April to September.
Organizations offering help
Wesley House Community Center in Meridian offers services to families in need of resources.
A family can be assigned an advocate who will help walk through the process of applying for disability benefits or food stamps, according to Brandy Rea, the assistant executive director.
Wesley House is also part of a multi-disciplinary team in Lauderdale County, that includes youth court, medical and mental health professionals, CPS and other agencies, Rea said.
The agencies on the team communicate with each other on felony physical abuse and sexual abuse cases.
Families First for Mississippi works to connect the dots between family services in the state, according to its website.
The services include “parenting classes, educational opportunities, positive youth development, literacy assistance, and workforce and job readiness.”
Dubose questions whether any outside agency could have prevented Jakie's death.
“I don’t think CPS or anybody, any state agency or even law enforcement could have done anything to prevent it from happening, to be honest with you,” Dubose said. “(Smith) made a choice, a decision, to do what she did and there’s nothing that we could have done that would have prevented it, unless the mother never placed those kids in her care.”
For Lea Anne Brandon with CPS, Jakie’s case should serve as a cautionary tale to a community.
“We’re so ingrained to mind our business and not to interfere, that we sometimes don’t do it to the harm of children,” she said. “Pay attention to what you see. If you’re concerned, stick your neck out…The call you make can save a child’s life.”
Bianca Moorman contributed to this report.