In the months leading up to her death, Kendrea Johnson, 6, frequently talked about wanting to harm herself. She told her foster mother that she wanted to jump out a window and die, according to a lawsuit. She drew a stick-figure picture of a child hanging from a rope, keeping it in her art folder.
On Dec. 27, 2014, Kendrea was found hanging by a jump rope, tied to her bunk bed railing in her foster home in Brooklyn Park, Minn. She was later pronounced dead. Found in her room were notes written on torn pages from a children’s book. “I’m sorry for going in your room,” the notes said. “I’m sad for what I do.”
A medical examiner was unable to determine her cause of death. But her grandmother thought it was suicide.
Kendrea’s death was a result of failures throughout the county child protection system intended to protect her, according to her family and a Star Tribune investigation of her death.
Mary Broadus, her grandmother, filed a wrongful-death lawsuit in 2016, arguing that the “unconscionable and unconstitutional indifference” to Kendrea’s serious medical needs and well-documented suicidal thoughts “manifested itself at every level of Hennepin County’s broken child protection system.”
Hennepin County reached a $1.5 million settlement with Kendrea’s grandmother, according to court documents unsealed Wednesday, the Star Tribune reported.
The family’s attorneys said the settlement amount is “one of the highest settlements against a government entity in Minnesota on claims involving the deliberate indifference to the welfare of a foster child,” the newspaper reported.
“Any loss of life is tragic, but the loss of someone so young is especially tragic,” Hennepin County said in a statement Wednesday, according to KSTP. “We are here to protect children — and we do that every day. We take that charge very seriously. However, in light of the significant costs and uncertainties, settling this lawsuit was in the best interest of all the parties involved.”
The investigation of Kendrea’s death underscored a pattern of failures in Minnesota’s child protection system, particularly involving child abuse reports not investigated, according to the Star Tribune.
From 2009 until 2013, 17 child deaths occurred in Hennepin County foster homes, according to the lawsuit. At least two of these deaths were a result of maltreatment. From 2014 to 2015, at least five children, including Kendrea, died as a result of abuse or neglect, the lawsuit stated.
Kendrea, whose father was killed in a drive-by shooting in 2008, first entered foster care in January 2014. After several unexcused absences from school, she was found “in her mother’s trashed home with various medications all over the floor,” according to the lawsuit.
In March 2014, the young girl was placed in the Brooklyn Park foster home of Tannise Nawaqavou, who the lawsuit states was not trained to care for a child with serious mental illness, “nor was she provided support, education and access to services to provide foster care services for a child with these high needs.”
Nawaqavou at one point reported to Brooklyn Park police that Kendrea threatened to kill her with a screwdriver. Nawaqavou would regularly lock Kendrea in her room from the outside. And according to the lawsuit, the foster mother did not, in a timely manner, report a possible sexual encounter between Kendrea and a boy in her home.
Although the then-53-year-old foster mother told child protection officials about finding Kendrea partly naked with another child in the home, child protection records show that workers did not investigate the incident, the Star Tribune reported.
According to the lawsuit, the foster mother had been found responsible for physically abusing a child in her care in 2000. But the Department of Human Services still awarded her a foster care license in 2011.
In June of 2014, Kendrea was referred to day services at a treatment center and school, LifeSpan. The following month, a mental health counselor noted in case reviews that Kendrea was experiencing suicidal or homicidal behavior every day or nearly every day.
But LifeSpan did not tell the girl’s foster mother or the placement agency that oversaw the home that she was suicidal. The child protection worker on Kendrea’s case told police the day after she died that he did “not know of any suicidal ideations or threats and does not know of any mental disorders.”
This was despite the fact that Kendrea had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, depersonalization and adjustment disorder, according to the lawsuit. The child protection worker told police that he had “been periodically checking in with her and everything seems to be doing fine at Life Span.”
The lawsuit alleged the worker “failed to ever make an adequate inquiry” into Kendrea’s psychological well-being “despite his duties, and the obvious and serious risk of harm. This is deliberate indifference.”
After an investigation of Kendrea’s death, the Department of Human Services revoked her foster mother’s foster care license. However, the woman was not found responsible for Kendrea’s death.
The lawsuit initially named a number of defendants, including Kendrea’s child protection worker and her foster care mother. But those names were all later dismissed, leaving only the county as a defendant. The parties reached the settlement earlier this year, and the details were made public Wednesday.
Speaking to KSTP on Wednesday, Kendrea’s grandmother said she is exhausted from the two-year legal battle that eventually led to the settlement. “It will never be over for me,” she said.
Marketa Gentry, Kendrea’s aunt, told The Washington Post that she was pleased with the outcome of the case. She said she hopes Kendrea’s death will continue to help expose injustices in the foster care system.
“Hopefully, more children will be saved,” Gentry said.
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