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Death of boy, 7, found in Denver storage unit, could spark new rules about following up on kids at risk who are pulled from school

Caden McWilliams was officially withdrawn from DPS last fall to be home schooled, but police believe he was already dead

Flowers, candles and stuffed animals are left outside the Public Storage site on East Evans Boulevard in Denver where Caden McWilliams, 7, was found dead. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)
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Caden McWilliams’ body lay hidden in a storage unit for as long as seven months, and no one was looking for him.

The fact no one reported the 7-year-old missing has prompted child advocates to call for a system of follow-up when a child who has been the subject of an abuse or neglect investigation stops showing up or is abruptly removed from school.

“This issue will have to be addressed in the broader child advocacy community,” potentially as soon as the 2019 legislative session, said Becky Miller Updike, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Children’s Law Center.

“Of course, there should be some mechanism” for automatic communication between schools and child welfare officials, she said. “I’m not sure what that will be, but I’m sure the topic will be brought to the table.”

State Rep. Jonathan Singer, a Longmont Democrat and a former child-protection caseworker, agreed that Caden’s death should be a catalyst for a discussion about how better to protect kids who abruptly stop showing up at school. “We can’t be afraid to ask the question: Does that provide a compass as to whether kids are at greater risk for abuse?” Singer said.

Elisha Pankey (Denver Police Department)

Caden’s body was found Dec. 23 in a storage unit on East Evans Avenue. His remains had reportedly been encased in concrete. Police have estimated that the boy died around May 24.

On its website, the state Department of Human Services Child Fatality Review Committee does not list Caden McWilliams by name, but reports being notified on Dec. 24 of the death of a 7-year-old boy. According to that document, the boy’s family had previously been reported to child welfare authorities.

Leland Pankey (Denver Police Department)

On Monday, the Denver District Attorney’s office charged Caden’s mother, Elisha Pankey, 43, with child abuse resulting in death and abuse of a corpse. Pankey, walking with the aid of a cane, appeared in court again on Wednesday as a judge issued an order barring her from contact with her older son. Pankey remains in jail on $250,000 bail; her husband, Leland Pankey, has not been charged in Caden’s death, but is in jail, facing charges that he assaulted Elisha Pankey in 2017.

An autopsy, which is expected to reveal the exact cause of Caden’s death, had not been released as of Jan. 9.

Child abuse expert says mandatory inspection should be law

Last spring, Caden attended Ellis Elementary School in Denver. The last day of class on most Denver Public Schools campuses was May 31, a week after Caden is believed to have died.

Fox31 News has reported that Caden was formally withdrawn from school at the beginning of the fall semester, because his mother intended to home school him. Denver Public Schools officials, citing privacy laws, declined to confirm that.

A Colorado Sun report in October examined the growing concern that a small minority of parents use home schooling as a means to hide child abuse.

MORE: For some, home schooling is not about learning. It’s about hiding child abuse.

In an interview for that story, Dr. Barbara L. Knox, a pediatrician and professor at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine who specializes in child abuse, said, “If there is an open child protective services case and that child is disenrolled, it should be mandated that somebody has to get into that house and see that kid.”

There is no such mandate in Colorado, or in most other states.

Home school advocates resist efforts to stiffen regulation

State law leaves to school districts the responsibility for assuring that families who say they are home schooling are meeting the few requirements Colorado has for them. Those requirements include providing 172 days of instruction and notifying a school district — any district in the state — of their intent to home school.

Home-schooling advocacy groups, pointing out that the vast majority of families who home school do so with the best interest of their children in mind, have resisted attempts here and in other states to strengthen laws regulating the practice.

“Home schooling is highly valued in Colorado,” Singer said. “But we can say that teachers are not only responsible for educating kids, but they also are in many ways the eyes and ears who keep kids safe.”

Death is second high-profile case involving Denver schools

In August, Denver Public Schools officials told the Sun they could find no record that the district ever initiated a follow-up on a child removed from school to assure that instruction was occurring, or to verify a child’s safety. District officials also said they were not aware of any instance when steps were taken to force a family to re-enroll a child as a result of concerns about the level of instruction or safety in the home.

Caden’s death marks at least the second highly publicized death of a child after that child stopped attending class in a Denver school, and who had been the subject of an abuse investigation.

Chandler Grafner, also age 7, died of starvation in 2007, after his caregivers removed him from school, claiming they intended to home school him. Shortly before that, Chandler’s teachers had reported their suspicions that the boy was being abused.

This week, DPS officials declined to answer questions about Caden or his brother and their enrollment in school or any absences Caden might have had. In response to questions about what action schools take when a student is absent for a prolonged period, district spokesman Will Jones cited written policies stating that district employees are trained annually on requirements for reporting child abuse, and that the district expects that parents should be notified by phone of a child’s unexcused absence, preferably on the same day.

In a statement released Monday announcing formal charges against Pankey, Denver District Attorney Beth McCann said, “While this case will take time to resolve, it will take even longer for our community to learn and heal from this tragedy

In a written statement issued Tuesday in response to a question, McCann said what she hoped the community would learn is “that we need to take care of each other and watch out for each other, including those who have tough lives and struggle with drug addiction. We need to treat each other with kindness and dignity and stop violence within families. I also hope we learn to value and respect our children and to keep them safe.”

MORE: Read more politics and government coverage from The Colorado Sun.

Asked if she would support requiring schools to notify authorities when a child who has been subject of an abuse or neglect investigation is removed from school, McCann said in a written statement, “I cannot say if such a requirement would have been beneficial in this case. We are still investigating.”

As the investigation continues, Singer said this case has prompted questions that lawmakers and child advocates should address. He suggested a good beginning would be for the state to look at ways to enable various computer systems — such as those used by schools, or to provide Medicaid or conduct child welfare investigations — to communicate with each other.

“We should look at, is there a way we can use these systems as predictive indicators? For example, if a child is missing a lot of school, or has missed the last few pediatrician appointments,” that could be an indication of a problem that school or child welfare officials might want to follow up on, he said.

“You can’t prevent everything,” Singer said. “But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to take whatever steps you can.”



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