Records in toddler's death raise questions about state oversight

state 'dropped ball' when toddler's grandmother didn't take drug tests

bestep@herald-leader.comDecember 14, 2010 

Kayden Branham died after drinking drain cleaner at this trailer on Boston Hill Road in Wayne County, where his mother and grandfather also lived.

In the year before a Wayne County toddler drank drain cleaner and died, social workers tried repeatedly to have a woman helping care for him take drug tests, without success in most cases.

More than two dozen times, social workers left messages for Melissa Branham, the toddler's grandmother, to come in for a drug test, but she didn't, according to the state's file on the case. On at least two occasions, Branham failed to show up after saying she would try to come in for a drug test.

The difficulty in getting Branham to take drug tests should have prompted caseworkers to take a closer look at whether the state should remove Kayden Branham, 20 months old when he died, and his teenage mother, Alisha Branham, from Melissa Branham's home, according to an expert on child protection.

David Richart, executive director of the National Institute for Children, Youth and Families, a think tank in Louisville, said the cabinet should have done more to assess whether Melissa Branham was the best person to supervise her daughter and grandson.

"Drug abuse is one of the biggest indicators or predicators of abuse and neglect by the cabinet's own statistics," Richart said. "If there is that many (missed drug tests) then somebody dropped the ball."

Instead, Alisha Branham, 14, moved to her father's trailer outside Monticello about a month before Kayden died because there was no food, water or electricity at her mother's house, she said later.

It was at her father's trailer that Kayden, looking for juice, drank Liquid Fire that had been left in a coffee cup on a table. The caustic chemical can be used in making crystal meth.

The toddler died less than an hour later of respiratory failure on May 30, 2009, records show.

The details about circumstances leading up to Kayden's death were included in a file maintained by the Cabinet for Health and Family Services. Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd released portions of the file Monday in response to a lawsuit filed by the Lexington Herald-Leader and joined by The (Louisville) Courier-Journal.

The cabinet had refused to release the file, but Shepherd ruled the public and newspapers had a legitimate interest in trying to assess the cabinet's efforts to protect Alisha and Kayden.

Vikki Franklin, spokeswoman for the cabinet, said state officials could not comment on specifics of the case.

The documents Shepherd released show that social workers first had contact with Melissa Branham and Larry Branham, who are divorced, in the late 1990s.

The state placed Alisha in foster care in May 2007 because of neglect, the file shows.

Melissa's son had been killed in an ATV accident and her mother had died in a house fire, and she was having difficulty coping with the deaths, the records indicate.

Alisha gave birth to Kayden in September 2007 at age 13, while she was in foster care.

Social workers assisted the family with goals to deal with their problems, and Larry and Melissa Bran ham completed parenting classes, records show.

By late 2007, the state had returned Alisha and Kayden to live with her mother.

There were indications of continued problems as social workers tried to help the family during the next 18 months, which is not unusual.

Caseworkers got reports that Larry and Melissa Branham were using drugs, but they denied that.

Alisha told a caseworker in summer 2008 that she often stayed with her father, and social workers were concerned that Melissa Branham did not know where Alisha was at times.

Alisha was having problems in school and had missed more than 30 days by January 2009, telling social workers during one visit she had to stay home with the baby because her mother had stayed with a boyfriend that day, according to the file.

That same month, Melissa Bran ham told a caseworker she sometimes took pain pills for which she did not have a prescription.

Social workers talked to Branham in February 2009 about going into drug rehabilitation, but she later said she hadn't used drugs in a long time, according to the file.

Social workers checked often on the welfare of Alisha and her son, also known as Kayden Daniels, in the months before his death, reporting that he seemed to be doing well.

But they also noted repeated problems getting Melissa Branham to take drug tests. Branham said she didn't have the money to pay for them.

Richart said that has been a problem at times, but social workers should not have let Branham go so long without being tested just because she could not pay.

"I would say two times is enough," Richart said of the missed drug tests. "If there is a pattern of non-compliance, that should have sent bells ringing to both the social worker and her supervisor."

Social workers told Branham in 2009 that the state would pay for three drug screens, but she still didn't come in as requested several times.

Twice in 2008, when she did show up for tests, her urine sample was diluted — a potential indication of an attempt to tamper with them.

Two months before Kayden died on May 30, 2009, Branham tested positive for an anti-anxiety drug but couldn't immediately prove she had a prescription for it, according to the file.

In April 2009, Branham took a drug test that was negative, but social workers continued pressing her to show she was not abusing drugs.

She did not come in for additional tests in May despite five messages from social workers.

Social workers had ample reason to place Kayden and his teen mother somewhere besides her mother's home, said Somerset attorney Mark Stanziano, who represents the toddler's father, Bryan Daniels, in a criminal case arising from Kayden's death.

"In my estimation, that was way more than was needed to do something with these kids," he said.

Months after Kayden died, Melissa Branham went into drug rehab.

Alisha, in a letter to her social workers in December 2009, credited them with helping her mother.

"If it weren't for you, Mommy never would have went to rehab," Branham wrote to her former social worker. "You don't know how much you have changed our lives."

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