Lauren McConniel

Lauren McConniel

MUNCIE -- In the months leading up to her death, 5-year-old Lauren McConniel was treated twice at Ball Memorial Hospital, once at Southway Urgent Care Center, once at St. Vincent Randolph Hospital in Winchester and three times at Merdian Services, a behavioral health care provider.

Despite staff seeing broken fingers, malnutrition, a head injury, weight loss, unusual vaginal appearance and bizarre behavior, only one of these professional caregivers called Child Protective Services (CPS), which was just a 1-800 telephone call away, police say.

Karen Royer -- a counselor at Meridian who reported that in all of her years of dealing with kids she had never heard of such bizarre behavior, and who believed the girl was being seriously sexually abused -- did contact CPS. Lauren looked exhausted, frail and fragile to Royer.

But that was on March 1, and the target of the sexual abuse allegation was not the girl's father, Ryan, or stepmother, Brittany, who had custody of Lauren. The target was Amber Huggins, the girl's natural mother who was living in Knoxville, Tenn. Huggins had last seen her daughter seven months earlier, when Lauren was in good health, and Huggins had been desperately searching for her.

By March 3, Lauren was hospitalized at Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis, where she developed seizures, respiratory failure and shock. She died there six days later.

"Child Protective Services was contacted by Karen Royer over allegations of sexual abuse that Ryan and Brittany made about the natural mother," said Muncie police Sgt. Jimmy Gibson. "The trouble is, Karen Royer believed Ryan and Brittany. They were believable. But I don't suspect the natural mom at all. The natural mom hadn't had contact with the child since August, and here this (allegation) was coming up in February and March. When the natural mom had custody of her, her weight was normal and the pictures showed she was healthy and happy."

And those weren't the only lies the McConniels told to caregivers, Gibson said. They also claimed that Lauren was being treated for malnutrition by a Winchester physician, who had never even seen her once.

Also, at Southway Urgent Care on Feb. 4, the McConniels presented themselves as rescuers of the child, claiming they had just recently obtained custody of the girl. "When questioned about the girl's weight, they acted concerned and blamed the natural mom," Gibson said. "And they were convincing."

Bill Gosnell, a nurse at Southway who treated Lauren, declined comment, saying, "This is going to trial."

On Dec. 8, Lauren was treated by physician Tom Mengelt in the emergency department at BMH for broken right fingers from jumping on the bed.

"I don't know why they didn't report that to (CPS)," Gibson said. "People don't want to believe that parents would hurt their kids that way. They think surely the parents care or they wouldn't bring a kid in with broken fingers."

The child was seen again at BMH on March 2 for a head injury caused by a fall. A clinical impression of malnutrition and behavioral problems was also noted during that visit. The hospital sent Lauren home after treatment including a CT scan.

On that same day, the McConniels took the child to Valle Vista Health Systems in Greenwood for psychiatric treatment (the couple were unable to contact Meridian).

Ellen Harrington, a counselor at Valle Vista, diagnosed the girl's problem as lack of supervision, failure to thrive, malnutrition and medical neglect. Harrington referred Lauren to Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis, where she was taken in the early morning hours of March 3. She died there on March 9.

"We can't comment regarding any specific patient or related processes, but we are cooperating fully with the investigation, and our hearts go out to the family," BMH spokesman Neil Gifford said.

Hank Milius, president of Meridian Services, said, "We at Meridian Services are deeply saddened by the death of Lauren McConniel. While privacy laws prevent us from commenting specifically on this case, in the event there is a suspected case of child abuse or neglect, Meridian staff are trained to make a report to the Indiana Department of Child Services."

Gibson credits Southway with referring Lauren to Meridian Services, and he credits Meridian Services for contacting CPS.

Under Indiana law, anyone who has reason to believe that a child is a victim of child abuse or neglect is required to report it.

Investigation ongoing

Police have not closed their investigation of the hospital's and Southway's failure to report the McConniels to CPS. Failing to report is a misdemeanor, Gibson said.

"Any red flag could be reported to us," said Ann Houseworth, a spokesman for the department of child services. "We would rather assess a situation that was not a case of abuse and neglect than not assess a situation and find that the child was placed in more harm."

The child abuse hotline is staffed 24 hours a day. If a child is in imminent danger of serious bodily harm, CPS is required by law to respond within an hour. If a child may be a victim of abuse, the agency must respond within 24 hours, and if a report of child neglect is made, the maximum response time by law is five days.

"If someone sees something that makes you wonder, you might want to ask questions to find out more," Houseworth said.

She declined comment on Lauren's death.

After Royer reported the suspected abuse of Lauren to CPS, "I believe CPS here contacted CPS in Tennessee, because that's where the allegations were," Gibson said. "Lauren was scheduled to be interviewed by SMART (Sexual Molestation and Abuse Response Team), me or (Sgt. Linda) Cook, on March 3. We were doing it as a courtesy for Tennessee. That's when she went into Riley. I wish I could have talked to her. I hate it that I didn't."

Police also haven't closed their investigation into other family members for failure to report.

Lauren's stepgrandparents Robert and Angie Lee and her step aunt Samra Lee shared a house at 2304 S. Ebright St. with the McConniels, Lauren and Lauren's older sister.

"There are a whole lot more family members (than the McConniels) who could be held accountable," Gibson said. "But how far do we go? Do we arrest everybody? We're behind on other cases and under-staffed."

Amber Huggins, Lauren McConniel's mother, spent six months trying to find daughters

MUNCIE -- The biological mother of Lauren McConniel says she lost custody of the girl because she couldn't afford an attorney.

She also says she pleaded unsuccessfully with the girl's father and stepmother -- via e-mail -- to tell her where they were living in the months before Lauren's death.

"I was kept from my daughter for six months," said Amber Huggins, a Marion native now living in Knoxville, Tenn. "I looked everywhere for them (Lauren and her 9-year-old sister) for six months."

Five-year-old Lauren's father, Ryan McConniel, and stepmother, Brittany McConniel, have been charged with felony neglect of a dependent resulting in Lauren's death on March 9.

Amber and Ryan's divorce decree in White County, Ark., granted Ryan custody of both children to the father.

"I did not have the financial resources to have an attorney," Amber said this week in a telephone interview. "Ryan had an attorney and I did not. There was no other reason he got custody. I was not an unfit mother. I never hurt my children."

Ryan kept the older daughter, but let Amber have Lauren starting at Christmas of 2008 after Amber filed a complaint of child abuse.

"She had bruises on her," Amber said. "I asked her what happened and she said she didn't know. I took pictures of the bruises but they were old and not good quality pictures. Child protective services in White County said it was not enough."

Amber had Lauren until August 2009 when Ryan took her back. He gave Knoxville police an address in Winchester where he said he would be living.

But Amber later traveled to Winchester, and, accompanied by the police, went to the address Ryan had provided to Knoxville police.

Nobody had lived at the address in a long time.

"I sent numerous e-mails begging them to give me their address," Amber said. "I was told they were living in Winchester. I heard they were living in Farmland. I heard Fort Wayne. I heard Muncie. I heard everything."

Amber said Ryan and Brittany responded by e-mail that she could see the girls when they got old enough to decide for themselves if they wanted to see her.

"I went to the Muncie police the same day I went to Winchester," Amber said. "They told me to file contempt charges against Ryan (for denying her court-ordered visitation rights). I was in the process of filing contempt charges when I got the phone call that Lauren was in the hospital."
Ryan, Brittany and the two girls had been living with Brittany's sister, Samra Lee, and Brittany's mother and stepfather, Angie and Robert E. Lee, on South Ebright Street.

"My daughter was alive and perfectly happy and normal and healthy when she was with me," Amber said. "She was a normal delivery, a normal pregnancy and a normal daughter. I should be signing her up for kindergarten and she should be cheerleading."

After Lauren's death, child protective services removed the 9-year-old from Ryan and Brittany's custody and placed her in foster care.

On March 19, Muncie attorney Kimberly Dowling, representing Amber, filed a petition for emergency custody of the 9-year-old, who now lives with Amber. The petition said Lauren was emaciated, significantly bruised and had elevated salt levels in her blood when she died.

"Child protective services in Arkansas was involved in December of 2008 or January of 2009 over allegations that Lauren had bruises," said Muncie police Sgt. Jimmy Gibson. "They investigated it, and I believe it was reported by the father and stepmother that Lauren was now living with the bio-mom, so the case was closed. The father and stepmother reported that Lauren had bumped into a trash can. The bio-mom had pictures of bruising but I think they were taken with a cell phone and weren't very good."

The Lees remain under investigation by Gibson for failure to report child abuse and neglect.

"Hopefully, some family might come forward and have a conscience and do the right thing," Gibson said. "The uncle next door threatened to call child protective services but never did."

Angie Lee gave police a statement, while Samra Lee declined to be interviewed, according to Gibson. Robert E. Lee went in for a police interview but reported he was hurting and ended up putting himself in the hospital, according to Gibson. "He said he needed to leave and never came back."


Urgent Care in Austin said...

This is so sad, hopefully justice will be dealt.

Anonymous said...

Sad part of all of this is the worthless aunt is out living her life now. The bio dad will probably get away with it and more than likely do it again. All those nurses and doctors that did nothing its unbelievable! How do any of them sleep at night.

Anonymous said...

He did not get away with it

Anonymous said...

He did not get away with it

Anonymous said...

He did not get away with it

Anonymous said...

this was my friend..I worked in her preschool class at church for a few years. Every Sunday we would play games. I miss her so much �� I can't believe it's been 7 1/2. She would've been getting close to her teenage years.

Anonymous said...

I dont understand why Amber would be accused when she wasn't even in the state when it started and even if she was the one to do it within the time she was taken, she should've gotten better by the time she was enrolled into the hospital

Post a Comment