Kentucky's child protection system under scrutiny after girl's murder

state child-protection system did not act on record of family abuse

bestep@herald-leader.comNovember 26, 2011 

ELKTON — When Kimberly Dye was trying to adopt her great-niece in 2006, she said her two sons were excited about a little sister joining the family, according to state documents.

Garrett Dye, then 12, was asked to write what he would tell friends about his new sister, Amy, who was 5, and what he hoped she would be like.

"I will tell them that she is the best sister ever," he wrote. "I would like her to be funny and happy wherever she goes."

Not quite five years later, on a bitter-cold evening in February, Garrett beat Amy, 9, to death in the gravel driveway of their Todd County home with a metal jack handle, then dragged her body about 100 yards behind the house and hid it in a thicket.

Between the adoption and the murder, the picture that emerges from records and interviews is of a teenager who began having worrisome behavior problems — including taking a gun to school — and a bright little girl dogged by abuse.

The record also points up what some people see as a failure of the state system designed to protect kids from abuse and neglect.

Years before her death, a school nurse and others had reported concerns several times that Amy was suffering rough treatment at her adoptive home.

However, caseworkers ignored or failed to properly investigate those concerns, a judge concluded.

The case has added to calls by lawmakers and child advocates for reforms and more openness in the state's child-protection system.

"I do think there was a systematic failure that led to her death," said state Rep. John Tilley, a Hopkinsville Democrat who chairs the House Judiciary Committee.

A new life in Kentucky

Amy's move to a new home amid the fertile farmland of southern Todd County was supposed to be a better chapter in a troubled life.

She had been physically and sexually abused as a toddler in Washington state, where she was born. By the time she was 3, her father was out of the picture and the state had taken her from her mother because of domestic violence in her home and other problems, according to records in her adoption file.

Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd opened records related to Amy earlier this month in response to a lawsuit by the Todd County Standard newspaper.

Amy was in at least two foster homes in Washington and also spent a year with her father's parents, but one foster home reported she was "a hand full" and didn't listen well.

Three other relatives, including Kimberly Dye, volunteered to take Amy in 2006, according to the file.

Dye, a divorced mother of two who worked as an office manager, told a Kentucky worker evaluating the potential adoption that she had always wanted a daughter.

Dye completed 30 hours of required foster-care training and said she would change her work schedule to be home when Amy got home from school.

She mailed Amy a book with photos of her home and pets, and sent her an Easter present. She said her sons Myles, then 15, and Garrett had decided to share a bedroom so Amy could have her own room.

Dye, a regular churchgoer and vacation Bible school teacher, described herself as friendly, patient and focused on whatever job was at hand.

"She will be the best choice in the care of this child, and this will prove to be the happiest of times for this young child and Ms. Dye," a reference, Cindy McElroy, wrote in March 2006.

State caseworkers had substantiated an allegation of abuse against the boys' father, Chris Dye, in 2003 after he hit Garrett about 30 times with a belt, but Kimberly and Chris Dye divorced in 2004.

Officials in Kentucky and Washington approved Kimberly Dye to adopt Amy, and she came to Kentucky in August 2006.

Caseworkers who followed up in December reported Amy had proudly showed them her "adorable" bedroom. She was enjoying her toys, had a new kitten and seemed extremely close to Dye and her sons.

"Overall, Amy has made an excellent adjustment to her new family, and this appears to have been an excellent placement for Amy," the caseworkers wrote.

Signs of abuse emerge

Within months, however, school officials began reporting concerns that Amy was being abused.

Starting in March 2007, a nurse or others at South Todd Elementary made numerous reports to state child-protective workers of suspected abuse or problems, according to state records and Shepherd's ruling.

The school officials reported seeing injuries on Amy.

In September, for instance, Amy said her brothers had hurt her, and there was a knot on her forehead and bruising around her eye.

In other instances, Amy said one of her brothers had kicked her, shot her in the arm with a BB gun, squeezed her face so hard the skin peeled and hit her with a shovel, according to the records.

Caseworkers talked to Kimberly Dye about the reports, although apparently not in every case.

Dye, who received a $551 monthly subsidy for adopting Amy, said that the girl was clumsy and bruised easily, and that there had been a problem with Amy falling and blaming her brothers.

Dye also told caseworkers that Amy often lied, and that she and her ex-husband Chris, who had moved back in with her and the children by early 2007, had discussed sending her to a relative who could get her therapy.

In some cases, state caseworkers referred the allegations to an outside agency but decided not to offer other services or take further action to monitor the family because Amy was allegedly hurt by a sibling, not a parent.

Shepherd said in his ruling that the Cabinet for Health and Family Services erred by claiming it had no duty to investigate the series of reports of sibling-on-sibling abuse.

Shepherd said the cabinet discounted or ignored the repeated reports of abuse.

Caseworkers also had other information that should have raised red flags, Shepherd said, including that Garrett had taken a gun to school; that he had been sent to a juvenile facility in 2008 in a drug case; that he had admitted substance-abuse problems; and that Chris Dye, who had abused Garrett earlier, had moved back in with his family after Amy came to live in the home.

"No action was ever taken by the cabinet to protect her" despite that information and credible reports of abuse, Shepherd said in his ruling.

Treated 'like a dog'

Other problems in the months before Amy was killed came to light during the investigation of her murder.

Kimberly Dye's sister, Tammie Lopez, told a caseworker that Kimberly Dye, apparently frustrated because Amy had been defecating on herself, had made the girl put her toys and clothes in a shed sometime in the winter of 2010.

Dye told Amy that "if she was going to act like a dog, she would be treated like one," Lopez said.

Lopez also that said Amy was told to stay outside one night with only a jacket for warmth and that Kimberly Dye scolded Garrett for letting the girl back into the house.

Kimberly and Chris Dye also allegedly left Amy in the parking lot of a Clarksville, Tenn., motel for a short time with her suitcase.

The couple took the child back home after no one picked her up but told her no one wanted her, Lopez said.

Kimberly Dye said she knew nothing about the incident, but Chris Dye, an emergency medical technician, admitted he left Amy at the motel briefly to teach her a lesson because she'd been lying.

The week before the murder, Kimberly Dye called for advice about putting Amy back with an adoption agency "because she is bad and won't listen," Lopez said.

Attempts to reach Kimberly and Chris Dye were not successful.

Excelling in school

Krista Stratton, Amy's teacher in the third and fourth grades, said she didn't see the incontinence or other problems that Amy's adoptive mother reported.

Amy was a bubbly girl who got off the bus with a smile, Stratton said, a gifted student who loved reading, poetry and art, and enjoyed science.

"She was just radiant," Stratton said "She excelled in school. She loved being there. It was almost like it was her bright spot."

Stratton said that Amy was very talkative and that she never saw any serious behavioral problems from Amy.

The day before she was killed, though, Amy took another girl's pudding and juice.

Stratton didn't see taking the items as a major offense, but school officials decided Amy would have in-school isolation the next day, Friday, Feb. 4, and sent a note home to her parents.

Amy told people at school that her parents were sending her away because of what had happened at lunch.

"They reported that Amy appeared very upset on Friday," a state caseworker wrote.

Punishment at home

When Amy got home, Chris Dye sent her to shovel gravel into tire tracks in the driveway as punishment.

Garrett Dye was with her, shoveling in the cold as punishment for taking his car somewhere he wasn't supposed to, according to the state file.

State police detective Lonnie Kavanaugh said that after awhile, Garrett told Amy to go in the house because he thought they'd done enough.

But Chris Dye sent her back out with a directive to keep at it, Kavanaugh said.

The detective thinks Garrett, who was stuck at home on a Friday night, got angry when he realized the chore wouldn't be over as soon as he'd hoped.

"That's when the anger starts to well up in him," Kavanaugh said.

"She's talking, he's mad. ... He flies off the handle."

Garrett said he hit Amy because she wouldn't be quiet, Kavanaugh said.

Garrett got the jack handle and beat his adoptive sister repeatedly. The autopsy report listed injuries to her head, chest, neck, shoulder and abdomen.

Amy, a biracial child with blue eyes who was 4 feet, 9 inches tall and weighed 76 pounds, died of trauma to the head and asphyxiation.

Garrett hid her body, changed his clothes and told his parents he didn't know where she was.

Chris and Kimberly Dye looked for Amy, then called friends to help and reported her missing.

Firefighters, rescue-squad workers, police and others helped look for Amy, finding her body after midnight.

Stratton had hugged Amy and told her she loved her at the end of school a few hours before. In the early hours of Feb. 5, people came to get her so she could talk to the police about her murdered student.

"Horrendous. I just remember freezing. I don't even remember saying anything," Stratton said. "It was like losing one of my own children."

A quick investigation

The investigation focused quickly on Garrett, the last person to see Amy.

Police arrested him on Super Bowl Sunday, less than 48 hours after the murder.

Dye, now 18, pleaded guilty to killing his sister. Todd Circuit Judge Tyler Gill sentenced him to 50 years in prison Wednesday.

Gill said Amy's murder was senseless, and he criticized the Cabinet for Health and Family Services for not doing more to protect the girl.

"This crime has drawn a lot of attention, has left this community dazed, confused and angry and searching for answers as to why this could have happened and why this happened," Gill said.

Gill called the state's child-welfare system dysfunctional, echoing the belief by some lawmakers and child advocates that Amy's case was not an isolated example.

Critics say the state could have done more to protect Amy, such as removing her from the home or monitoring the family.

Jill Midkiff, cabinet spokeswoman, said it appears the caseworker who handled reports of abuse to Amy in 2007 did not violate any cabinet standards. She noted that was during a prior administration, so the assessment was based only on the written record.

"As with any report, the worker must evaluate the veracity of the parties and judge the seriousness of the events at that time," Midkiff said. "Since there were no more reports from or about Amy in the 31/2 years preceding her murder by her brother, it seems the worker's actions were not implicated."

The cabinet has since revised policies and put in a new intake system for reports of abuse, "which ensures that there are checks and balances to assist workers in their duties," Midkiff said.

But state Rep. Tom Burch, D-Louisville, and Sen. Julie Denton, R-Louisville, have said they want to hold hearings on whether the cabinet is being open on how it reports about children under its supervision.

Tilley said many state caseworkers do a heroic job and can feel overwhelmed by their caseloads. If lawmakers conclude high caseloads caused the failures in Amy's case, they need to fix that, he said.

Ideas for changes vary, such as giving county attorneys a role in monitoring child-abuse reports, but there is a sense that lawmakers need to act, Tilley said.

"Something has to change," Tilley said. "We can't have another Amy Dye."

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