Select It Sunday: Ke’Shaun Vanderhorst

Kristen Y. selected Ke’Shaun Bryant Vanderhorst as this week’s Select It Sunday case. Like Peter Kema‘s and Relisha Rudd‘s, this is a case that really gets to me. Also like with those two, it’s as if the system opened up whole knew cracks just for Ke’Shaun to fall through. What’s more, the 22nd anniversary of this adorable little boy’s disappearance is tomorrow, Monday. He vanished from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on September 25, 1995, at the age of two years and three months.

I wrote about the case on my blog seven years ago, inserting my own commentary into Ke’Shaun’s Charley Project casefile. Since then there’s been an additional development: last October, Tina was charged with murder — not in Ke’Shaun’s disappearance, but in the case of a 64-year-old man whom she allegedly stabbed 77 times before setting his body on fire. She was homeless at the time, and was charged with murder, robbery, arson and “causing a catastrophe.”

I can’t find anything else about the case and don’t know if it has yet been resolved. It often takes a long time to resolve murder cases, as long as several years, so I wouldn’t be surprised if Tina is still awaiting trial. It’s been less than a year since she was charged, after all.

I wonder if this murder charge has prompted authorities to take another look at Ke’Shaun’s case. I can only hope so. Tina needs to pay for what she did to her son, and 2 1/2 to 7 years for child endangerment isn’t nearly enough.

If he is still alive — and he almost certainly is not — Ke’Shaun would be 24 years old today.

A bit of case commentary

My “delayed-reported missing children” post got me thinking. I added two names to it this evening, kids I’d missed in the first sweep of the site.

As you all know I try to sound objective and unbiased and all that in my case profiles. I just try to tell the story as I see it and let the reader draw their own conclusions, if any, as to what happened. And then there’s my blog, where I can say what I really think. Even there, I try to keep it cool. I’m a big believer in giving the benefit of doubt, and many times on here I’ve ranted about the judgmental, accusatory statements people make in missing child cases that are often based on nothing other than a “feeling.” I really can’t stand that.

Today, however, I’d like to try something new and provide a bit of play-by-play commentary on one of my cases. I picked Ke’Shaun Vanderhorst. It’s an utterly tragic disappearance. A helpless toddler was failed by so many different people who were supposed to help him. Justice was not served. He will probably never be found.

From the top:

Ke’Shaun was last seen at his residence in the 1400 block of north 17th Street in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on September 25, 1995. His mother, Tina Vanderhorst, told her relatives and police that the Department of Human Services (DHS) had taken the child. {A common enough cover story in such cases. Of course, someone who wasn’t a complete moron would have realized it wouldn’t hold water for long.} Her family became suspicious, however {wonder why?}, and her sister reported Ke’Shaun as a missing person on October 13. Investigators who searched Tina’s apartment in the 1400 block of 17th Street after the child went missing described it as filthy, cluttered and rat-infested. Tina repeated the story about Ke’Shaun being in DHS custody, but the DHS had no child by that name in their care. She was arrested for parole violation. Later, she was charged with dealing in infants, endangering the welfare of a child and corrupting the morals of a minor. {She got off easy. I wonder if they would have hit her harder today, in the wake of Aarone Thompson, Rilya Wilson, etc.}

Tina had long-standing problem with drugs and alcohol at the time of Ke’Shaun’s disappearance, and her boyfriend had threatened to remove Ke’Shaun from her custody as a result. {If only he had! Though, if he was dating Tina, chances are the BF wasn’t a terribly functional individual either.} He had previously been in foster care while his mother was incarcerated. Ke’Shaun was given back his mother in November 1994, after Tina was released from prison. He was classified as being at low risk for abuse, as his mother had never been accused of harming or neglecting him. She had been in jail when he was born and he was taken away from her immediately. {It seems to me that “was in jail from the time he was born until now” ought to cancel out “never accused of abusing kid” because, hello, she CAN’T abuse or neglect him while she’s in jail and he’s in foster care.} Beginning in January 1995, a social worker visited the family regularly to provide counseling to Tina and help her care for her son. DHS workers who observed Tina during this time described her as a devoted mother and found no evidence of drug use. After six months, they requested that the DHS close their file on Ke’Shaun, as they didn’t believe he and Tina needed supervision. {Wonder if they knew about her previous parenting fails, as shown below?} In August 1995, the file was closed. Ke’Shaun disappeared the following month. {Whoops.}

Tina had seven children, including Ke’Shaun, by 1995. Four of her children died in the 1980s. Eight-month-old Terrance Slaughter died in 1980, three-month-old Catrina Stephens died in 1983, and ten-month-old Kenneth Stephens died in 1985. Those deaths were attributed to pneumonia and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). {Shades of Marybeth Tinning here.} Tina’s daughter Marie was born premature and addicted to crack cocaine in 1988. She weighed only one pound at birth and she never left the hospital before she died at age four weeks. {Okay, technically this was natural causes, but, um, yeah, her mom pretty much killed her.} Tina’s remaining two sons, born in 1986 and 1987, lived with their paternal grandmother at the time Ke’Shaun vanished. {The sole survivors of Tina’s children. I really hope they grew up to become better people than their mother was. I really hope the authorities didn’t do anything dumb like give her custody of them after she got out of jail for the 1996 charges. (See below.)} Tina visited them regularly.

After her story about Ke’Shaun and the DHS was proved to be false, Tina stated that she sold Ke’Shaun to an African-American female named Virginia Graham. {If only this story was actually true.} She was paid $500 in twenty-dollar bills and used the money to buy crack cocaine. {Well, the crack part is probably true.} A sketch of the woman is posted below this case summary. She is described as being approximately 35 to 40 years old in 1995, 5’4 and 140 pounds with black hair and brown eyes. The abductor’s ears are pierced and she was well-dressed; she wore a maroon skirt, a cream-colored shirt or jacket and designer fingernails. Tina stated that Graham, whom she did not know, visited her apartment one day {like a fairy godmother} and offered to take Ke’Shaun because “someone” told her Tina was having difficulty caring for him. Graham drove a light blue four-door sedan with the letters “AL” in the license plate number. She had a white child seat inside the car for Ke’Shaun. She told Tina she lived in Philadelphia, was married and had two children of her own. Graham, if she exists {which she most certainly does not}, has never been identified.

Tina later changed her story yet again and stated that, while under the influence of drugs, she took Ke’Shaun at a friend’s fruit stand on Cecil B. Moore Avenue. She could not remember what happened to the child after that. {Of course he somehow magically disappeared from the fruit stand without anybody seeing or hearing anything, and Tina totally had nothing to do with it, no way.} Tina frequently left Ke’Shaun at the fruit stand for short periods of time prior to his disappearance, but would always come back and get him eventually. {If only she hadn’t.} Neighbors reported Ke’Shaun always wore clean clothing and did not appear hungry or abused prior to his disappearance, and they never saw Tina mistreat him, but she would frequently leave him in the care of others, sometimes overnight. {Hard to reconcile this with Tina’s past history and the cops’ description of her apartment. But of course, the neighbors would hardly say “yeah, the kid was screaming all day and all night, we heard her beating him, we saw the bruises, we just didn’t care enough to do anything about it.” Not saying that was the actual situation either. It was probably something in between. Abusers and abused children are excellent at keeping up appearances.}

Neither Ke’Shaun nor the {imaginary} woman Tina told the police about have been heard from again. His mother pleaded no contest to child endangerment in connection with his case in November 1996, and was sentenced to 2 1/2 to 7 years in prison. {That’s a bargain price to pay, for what she did to Ke’Shaun. And to all her other kids.} Police began reinvestigating Tina’s other children’s deaths after Ke’Shaun disappeared. {Gee. I wonder why.} No charges were filed, however. After her release from prison, Tina was arrested for prostitution at least once.

Ke’Shaun has never been located. {Another forgotten symbol of the dangers of drugs, self-centered sociopathic parenting, and inept child protection officers.}

A trial this year for Geralyn Graham? My thoughts on the Rilya Wilson case

Geralyn Graham, the foster mother of Rilya Wilson, may go to trial this fall, sez the Miami Herald. Graham was charged with Rilya’s murder in 2005.

The case is incredibly complicated and tragic. Rilya was neglected and abused by her mother, a cocaine addict, but Graham was clearly no better, something that should have been obvious long before Rilya disappeared. The state of Florida must have been really hard up for foster parents to certify a convicted fraud with a string of alias and an alleged “psychotic disorder.” A social worker was supposed to visit Rilya once a month to determine her well-being, but Rilya’s social worker didn’t so much drop the ball as deliberately hurl it into the abyss. She falsified records of visits she wasn’t making. As a result, no one found out about Rilya’s disappearance until over a year after it happened. I am quite sure that Geralyn Graham killed Rilya, but I’m not at all sure the state can prove it, given that one of their major witnesses backed out and will not testify after all. There is no body. As far as I know, there’s no physical evidence at all. There are no direct witnesses to the alleged homicide.

Too bad we can’t put the entire Florida DCF on trial for Rilya’s homicide. They all killed her together, them and Graham. Rilya’s case is unique on Charley, not because she was gone a long time before she was reported missing, but because of the way she was abysmally failed by the very system set up to protect her. Let’s look at some other Charley cases that are similar:

Brittany Williams, age 8, missing from Virginia since 2000. Disappearance not discovered for over two years. Brittany was living with a guardian at the time of her disappearance; her guardian had legal custody of her and she wasn’t in the foster care system. My theory is that Brittany, who had full-blown AIDS by the time of her disappearance, simply died and her guardian hid her body somewhere in order to continue to collect benefits from the state.

Peter Kema, age 6, missing from Hawaii since 1997. Disappearance not discovered for several months. Though Peter and his siblings were being supervised by the Hawaii Department of Human Services, they were living with their biological parents at the time of his disappearance. In retrospect, the DHS should have taken them all away long before he vanished. I believe they did act correctly once they realized Peter was missing, though. If the DHS had not demanded Peter’s parents produce him in person, it’s possible his disappearance wouldn’t have been discovered for much longer. It’s plain as day what happened to him and who did it.

Rene Romero, 4, missing from Nevada since 1994. His mother and her boyfriend killed him, then immediately moved out of state with their other kids to conceal his disappearance. It’s not clear when his disappearance was discovered, but it came to light when Rene’s parents were investigated for abusing their other children. They were both charged with murder in 1998, and eventually convicted. I don’t know whether Rene was under any kind of supervision by child protective services at the time of his death, but it seems unlikely.

Michelle Pulsifer, 3, missing from California since 1969. Her disappearance wasn’t reported to the police for over thirty years. Michelle’s mother had full custody of her and her father had no legal rights to her, and though he visited her and her brother there was nothing he could do when the family up and moved to another state very suddenly. This was to conceal Michelle’s death; she was murdered by her mother or her mother’s boyfriend or both of them. Decades later, Michelle’s aunt hired a private investigator to find her, and the police began investigating after the P.I. couldn’t find any record of her after 1969. Michelle’s mother and her boyfriend were charged with murder, but Mom was acquitted and the boyfriend died before trial.

Garnell Moore, 7, missing from Maryland since 2002. Bizarrely, even his own relatives didn’t notice he was gone for almost three years. Garnell’s parents weren’t part of his life and he was passed around to various (probably unwilling) relations, was never enrolled in school and never came to the notice of child protective services or, apparently, anyone else. It wasn’t that the system failed him, per se; he was never in the system to begin with. The last person known to have cared for him claims she abandoned him on the doorstep of a social services building, but the address she gave did not exist. God only knows what happened to him and if he’s still alive.

Adam Herrman, 11 or 12, missing from Kansas since 1999. Disappearance not noticed for nine years. A former foster child, he was legally adopted by his foster parents. They continued to pick up his benefit checks in his absence and gave various explanations for his absence to those who asked. Adam’s disappearance came to light when his adopted sister, who thought he had been given back to the Department of Social and Rehabiliation Services, tried to locate him though the SRS and found out that as far as the SRS knew, he was still with his adoptive parents. His adoptive parents claim he ran away and they were afraid to report it at the time. Riiiight. After Adam’s disappearance came to light, many credible witnesses came forward saying Adam had been severely abused by his adoptive mother. I think we all know what really happened.

Ke’Shaun Vanderhorst, 2, missing from Pennsylvania since 1995. Disappearance not reported for three weeks. His mother told her family he’d been taken by the state Department of Human Services, but they got suspicious and went to the police. Ke’Shaun’s mother, when confronted, gave several stories to account for his disappearance, including one where she sold him to a nice lady who promised to take care of him. She later pleaded no contest to child endangerment.

All these children were badly let down by those around them. Their parents or guardians abused them. Others in their lives knew about the abuse and failed to stop it. In some cases, child protective agencies failed to rescue them from abusive homes, or rescued them from abusive homes only to place them in other abusive homes. These kids never had a chance.

In my opinion, however, none of them were let down nearly as badly as Rilya Wilson was. In none of the above cases was there the level of supervision expected in Rilya’s case. The children were living with biological relatives or adoptive parents, not foster homes like Rilya, and social workers weren’t required to check up on them as Rilya’s social worker was supposed to do.