Wayne County family in crisis long before boy's fatal accident

Dead toddler and teen mother part of a troubled family known well by social workers

December 19, 2010 

MONTICELLO — Larry Branham held his 20-month-old grandson as the boy's father ran red lights during the frantic late-night drive to the hospital. He didn't know what exactly was wrong with Kayden. But he knew the blond-headed toddler drank something noxious enough to have his 14-year-old mother panicked and crying, and that he had a blister on his chest and was starting to gag.

"I knew something was bad wrong," Branham, 40, said last week in an interview at the Wayne County Detention Center. "I was praying the whole time."

Branham soon learned his grandson had ingested Liquid Fire drain cleaner, which can be used in making methamphetamine.

Someone had left some of the corrosive liquid in a coffee cup after making meth earlier that day at the trailer on a hill a few miles outside Monticello, where Kayden and his parents had been staying.

Kayden had wanted some juice before bed.

While his father went to the kitchen to get some and his mother looked for his pajamas, the toddler grabbed the coffee cup and took a drink. Kayden suffered severe internal burns. He died of respiratory failure less than an hour later, on May 30, 2009.

A judge released records on Kayden and his mother last week to the Herald-Leader, which had sued to get them.

The files provide new details on factors in Kayden's gruesome death, among them drug abuse, emotional problems and, some charge, inadequate state protection of the boy and his young mother.

Larry and Melissa Bran ham had married in 1992 and had two daughters, Alisha and Jessica, who is about two years older than her sister. Kayden was the son of Alisha, who was 13 when he was born.

The Branhams' marriage was short and troubled, according to a state file on the couple, court records and interviews.

Melissa Branham said in a July 1996 court petition that Larry Branham had come home drunk, upset the kids and hit her when she tried to leave. He had faced assault and other charges, including a rape charge that was reduced.

Melissa Branham apparently could be volatile as well.

In September 1996, a boyfriend said she had jumped out of a car in front of the city pool hall and hit him in the face. The next year, she was convicted of disorderly conduct and fourth-degree assault in other cases, court records show.

State social workers received reports in 1997 and in 2002 that Melissa Branham, who got custody of the girls after she and Larry divorced, was neglecting them, but social workers did not substantiate those claims.

Melissa Branham appeared to be a nurturing parent, and there was no evidence she had mistreated the girls, a social worker said in an October 2002 report.

Within a few years, however, the family's situation had taken a turn for the worse after personal tragedies, state records show.

Melissa Branham had a son from a previous marriage, Bobby Shawn Jenkins, who was killed in an all-terrain vehicle crash in 2004 at age 16.

The death devastated Melissa Branham, state records indicate.

Then two years later, Branham's mother, Mary Joyce Jones, died in a trailer fire, said Branham's father, Clarence Jones.

A counselor said Melissa Branham struggled with depression and anxiety after the deaths, and had gone on disability, according to a report in her state social-work file.

Larry Branham, who is disabled because of a bad back and nerve problems, said his ex-wife was hooked on pain pills before the deaths in her family, but her drug problem got worse after her son died.

Melissa Branham did not return a telephone message for comment.

By the spring of 2007, neither parent was doing a good job looking after Alisha or controlling her, according to state social workers.

Melissa Branham had custody of Alisha, but she often stayed with her father, whom she told a counselor she could intimidate.

Alisha missed more than 40 days of school in the 2006-07 year and tested positive for marijuana use in October 2006, according to her state file.

She often sneaked out of her father's house at night and had become sexually active with Bryan Daniels, who at 16, was four years older than her in the fall of 2006.

"Me and Jessie went wild 'cause Mommy just cried and slept" after her half-brother died, Alisha would say later.

Larry Branham said his ex-wife's drug use was a key factor in Alisha's problems, but acknowledged he couldn't control her, either.

A few months after she turned 12, Alisha was pregnant by Daniels, a high school wrestler.

With reports from teachers and others about problems Alisha and Jessica were having, the Department for Community Based Services investigated and moved in May 2007 to put them in foster care for their protection.

Social workers said in a report at the time it was clear Larry and Melissa Branham loved their daughters, but "neither parent took any action to correct or limit the behavior" of the girls.

Larry and Melissa Bran ham said they wanted their daughters back and would do anything to get them, records show.

Social workers set up a counseling plan for the family and parenting classes for Larry and Melissa Branham.

The two drove more than an hour each way two days a week to Columbia to complete the requirements, a counseling service reported.

Alisha, who had failed seventh grade while in the chaotic situation at home, worked hard on improving her grades, volunteering for make-up work, according to a letter from the teacher who worked with her at her foster home.

Her foster mother said Alisha seemed to have matured in foster care, the letter said.

"She's trying to get her life in order," teacher Rodney K. Holmes said in the letter reporting progress to Alisha's caseworker.

Alisha, who was still in foster care when Kayden was born in September 2007, thanked her caseworker, Ashley Dobbs, for helping her.

"You are a great person and you showed me the brighter side of life," Alisha said in one note.

Alisha pledged better behavior when she got out of foster care.

Melissa Branham also said things would be different when her daughters, and Kayden, came home to live with her.

The girls would have curfews and chores in a stable home, and would never be around anyone using drugs, she said. "Because I don't ever want you girls to go away ever again, I'm gonna do my part as a mother but you have to do your part okay," Melissa Branham wrote.

In late November 2007, social workers decided Jessica, Alisha and her infant son could return to live with Melissa Branham in Monticello.

Social workers continued monitoring the family's progress on meeting a variety of goals, however, such as maintaining a safe, stable home.

Their reports, and court records and interviews, show problems continued for the family through 2008 and into 2009.

In February 2008, Alisha reported swallowing several anti-anxiety pills after her mother got mad at her for staying at her father's. Her mother made her put her finger down her throat to throw up the pills, and she said she wouldn't do it again, a report from her caseworker said.

There also were allegations that Melissa Branham was using drugs.

Alisha told her caseworker in May she had seen what she thought was drug paraphernalia at her mother's house, and she thought her mother was selling the family's food stamps to get money for drugs.

The caseworker talked to Alisha about the importance of not leaving Kayden with Melissa Branham if she was using drugs, a report shows.

However, when the caseworker looked into the claim, Melissa Branham denied using drugs. The house was clean, and there was food in the refrigerator during a home visit in late May, a social worker said.

But Alisha also said her father was providing for her, according to a report, and other relatives said they also helped the teen mother and her baby.

In June 2008 a judge ordered Melissa Branham and her boyfriend, Patrick Decker, evicted from the apartment they'd rented together. The landlord said they had failed to pay the rent and water bill for several months, according to the court file.

That same month, a social worker noted in a report there were allegations of Melissa Branham using drugs.

She had tested positive for drugs in one court-ordered test, and gave a "diluted" urine sample in another test requested by social workers — a possible indication she tried to tamper with the test.

That same report said Melissa Branham didn't know where Alisha was at times, that the teen "appears to maintain the same out-of-control behaviors" as earlier, and that Branham did not seem to be doing anything to control her.

Six months later, social workers still noted problems and said the family had made minimal progress on the goals necessary to release them from monitoring.

Social workers reported that during home visits throughout 2008 and 2009, Kayden seemed to be doing well.

Concerns that Melissa Bran ham was abusing drugs and difficulty getting her tested continued, however.

Alisha would later say that by late April or early May 2009, the utilities at her mother's house had been cut off and there was no food.

Alisha said she and Daniels and their son started staying at a trailer outside town that her father had rented, so she could have cold milk for Kayden and give him a bath.

Larry Branham said he helped pay for the rent on the trailer, but that he stayed most of the time at the home of his mother and stepfather down the hill from the trailer and across the narrow road.

Larry Branham said he had no part in making meth at the trailer and didn't know that was going on. However, Daniels and Alisha knew, Alisha said later.

"I knowed Kayden shouldn't be around meth," Alisha said soon after Kayden died, social workers reported. "That's why we always took him to stay with somebody else when they cooked."

On May 30, 2009, a warm Saturday, they left in the morning and spent the day at the homes of various relatives, Alisha said.

Frances Hoskins, Daniels' aunt, said Kayden and other children played on a trampoline at another relative's house near hers. "He just had a great time," she said.

Daniels, Alisha and Kayden returned to the trailer late that evening.

Alisha said she didn't see Kayden drink from the cup of poison but heard the cup hit the floor. When she turned around, his lips were swelling.

Larry Branham said he was at his mother's across the road when the teen parents rushed in and said Kayden had drunk something.

The toddler was calm and not crying, yet.

"He showed me his tongue, said, 'Look, Pa,'" Larry Branham recalled.

Larry Branham said he didn't think there was time to wait for an ambulance. The three adults jumped in Daniels' small Chevrolet with the boy and headed for the hospital.

Emergency-room workers tried to save the boy, but his breathing became worse, and his heart slowed.

"He kept getting sicker and sicker," Alisha said the next morning, social workers said in a report. "He was saying 'mum.' Then he just stopped moving and he died."

At the police station the next morning, Alisha was in anguish, crying for her baby and her mother, sucking her thumb and acting as if she would vomit, a report from social workers said.

Melissa Branham also was devastated. Many nights after Kayden died, she slept on the ground between the graves of her son and grandson on a hill overlooking a broad valley east of Monticello, said her father, Clarence Jones.

She often read to Kayden at the grave, Jones said.

"It tore her heart out," he said.

A grand jury charged Daniels; Alisha's uncle Danny Anderson II; his girlfriend Alisha Dicken; and James Hunt with murder in Kayden's death.

The grand jury also charged those four, plus Larry Branham and Wesley T.J. Bell, with controlled-substance endangerment of a child.

All but Larry Branham were charged with making meth, and he was charged with complicity to make the drug.

The six have pleaded not guilty and are scheduled for trial in January.

Alisha Branham pleaded guilty in juvenile court to manslaughter, but Daniels' attorney, Mark Stanziano, said Kayden's death was an accident and that Daniels did not make meth.

Stanziano said Daniels has been condemned by a community "looking for a scapegoat for its own under-addressed rampant problems with ignorance, poverty and teen pregnancy" and sensationalized by the media looking for a story on the "collateral effects of the 'scourge of methamphetamine.'"

Larry Branham's attorney, James H. Wren II, said social workers should have been charged in the case as well.

Wren said in a court motion that by allowing Melissa Branham to have custody of Alisha, they could reasonably have foreseen they were putting Kayden "in jeopardy of life and limb."

A spokeswoman for the Cabinet for Health and Family Services said the agency could not comment on specific cases.

Alisha, however, has said she is grateful to social workers. In a December 2009 letter, she thanked Dobbs for sending her Christmas presents and helping Melissa Bran ham get into a drug rehabilitation program.

Alisha, who was still in detention then, reported that she was getting straight-A grades and that her mother, who had an eighth-grade education, was pursuing her GED and attending church.

"I'm looking forward to mommy getting out and us having a good life ... all because of you!" Alisha said.

Alisha has since been released to foster care, and Melissa Branham has finished rehab, family members said.

Larry Branham, who is being held in Wayne County Detention Center, spends a good deal of time thinking about the good-natured toddler who liked SpongeBob Squarepants, loved to feed the chickens and play with puppies, and was proud of his John Deere boots.

"He was just wonderful, the best kid ever," Branham said. "That's what I survive on right now, is the good memories."

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