The one-story brick house with Christmas decorations seemed normal enough, save for piles of household junk on the lawn, by the mailbox and in the carport.
Inside, every room was fouled by feces, according to a Baton Rouge police officer’s report. A child of about 7 was discovered barefoot, locked behind a door tied shut with a piece of fabric. Excrement, vomit, urine and roaches were visible in the bedroom where the child was standing, the report says.
The youngster had been beating on the door.
If not for two arrests Wednesday, the public might have never known about the case, in which four children were removed from the house in the 10000 block of Darryl Drive after an officer responded to a call about a disturbance. Kimberly Hall, 36, and Robert Martin, 37, were booked into the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison on counts of cruelty to juveniles in the matter.
But a movement that might have elicited answers about the case from the Department of Children and Family Services — the state agency charged with protecting children — appears to remain stalled months after the death of the legislator who pressured the department to open up about a similar matter in July.
In that ordeal, state Rep. Alfred Williams, D-Baton Rouge, excoriated DCFS after a malnourished 15-year-old boy was discovered having a seizure on a cot crawling with roaches in a home in the 1700 block of North 46th Street. The normally tight-lipped department held news conferences and issued a report about that case only after Williams said he’d spoken with informants who claimed the department “expressed a lack of concern or follow up” in various child welfare situations. Williams died not long after he called for a legislative ad-hoc committee to review DCFS’s performance and budget.
DCFS forwarded its internal report to the state inspector general for further review, but that agency’s leader, Stephen Street, said he could not talk about any of the department’s findings.
In an unsettling parallel to the case of the malnourished boy, two relatives of Martin’s said Monday that DCFS had been involved with the family on previous occasions. The agency removed Martin’s son from his care several years ago, they said.
Robert Martin’s boy — believed not to be one of the four taken from the residence Wednesday — is thought to still be in foster care, said Velma Martin, Robert Martin’s aunt. She tried to gain custody of the child some 10 years ago, but her nephew somehow convinced DCFS she shouldn’t be involved, she said.
Naquisha Martin, Robert Martin’s cousin, confirmed that account. She said her cousin and Hall were assigned by DCFS to take parenting classes but never did.
“I wish I would have known” about the other children, she said. Naquisha and Velma Martin live several miles from Baton Rouge.
DCFS said it could not answer questions about its policies regarding following up on parents whose children have been removed, citing confidentiality laws apparently intended to protect children.
The matter has come to light at a time when Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards is expected to announce an appointment for DCFS secretary. It’s unclear whether current secretary Suzy Sonnier will be reappointed, but Edwards’ team has convened a 22-person transition group “to make recommendations on (how to) better empower Louisiana families and prioritize the safety and well-being of our children.”
House speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, one of the lawmakers Williams had asked to create the ad-hoc team to review DCFS, said the last time he discussed those efforts was when Williams was still alive. Kleckley said some early conversations centered on working with DCFS directly to avoid having to create a special committee, or with folding the discussions into the House health and welfare committee. The other legislator called to form the committee, Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.
State Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, said he and the rest of the Capital Region Legislative Delegation, to which Williams belonged, are trying to restart the late representative’s inquiries into DCFS.
“We don’t want to leave unfinished any of Alfred’s work,” Claitor said. “It was clearly very important to him and it merits further investigation and follow through, and frankly we were dependent on him to take the lead on it. So we’re talking amongst ourselves about who is going to follow through and take the lead on this thing.”
DCFS spokeswoman Grace Weber, pressed for more comment, said revised statute 46:56 allows the department to speak about child welfare cases only when there is a fatality or near-fatality.
On Friday, dogs were heard yipping inside the Darryl Drive house where the four children had been found, but no one answered the door.
A neighbor, who would give only her first name, Mary, said Martin and Hall routinely left exposed trash outside their house. Their children sometimes splashed in a kiddie pool in the front yard. The couple seemed to want to collect more junk, she said. One time, the pair took a broken air-conditioner Mary left outside by her trash bin.
At an estate sale Mary hosted, the couple came by announcing they clean houses for a living. Mary held her gaze, raising her eyebrows and tilting her head down.
“Yeah, right,” she said.
Efforts to reach lawyers for Martin and Hall, who remain jailed, were unsuccessful Monday.
Follow Maya Lau on Twitter, @mayalau.