JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (CN) – Attorneys from both sides of the Kansas-Missouri border appeared before the Missouri Supreme Court on Tuesday to determine which state has jurisdiction over a wrongful death lawsuit about a boy who was starved and tortured by his father and stepmother before his body was fed to pigs.
Social workers in each state are accused of negligently monitoring the safety plan of Adrian Jones, a 7-year-old boy who was neglected and severely abused by his father and stepmother before he succumbed and died.
His partial remains were discovered in the Kansas City, Kansas, family’s barn on Thanksgiving Day in 2015, where police later learned his body had been fed to pigs.
Adrian’s stepmother Heather Jones, 31, pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in 2016 and is currently serving a life sentence. His father Michael Jones, a 46-year-old bail bondsman, pleaded guilty to the same crime the following year and was sentenced to life in prison with the chance for parole in 25 years.
Prior to his death, the child was shuffled across the border to dodge caseworkers’ inquires about his safety.
It is now up to the justices of the Missouri Supreme Court to determine how far the long arm of the law can reach, and who dropped the ball.
Fisher Patterson attorney Terelle Mock argued Tuesday on behalf of Kansas, its Department for Children and Families, and Gina Meier-Hummel, head of the agency.
Mock told the court that a wrongful death lawsuit filed in Missouri – nearly identical to another brought in Kansas – should be dismissed on the basis of comity, as the due process clause in each state ends at the border. Adrian’s biological mother and grandmother sued in both states.
“We can’t take action against a citizen in the state of Missouri….our whole point is we don’t have the authority to do that,” the attorney said, citing the 1979 Supreme Court decision Nevada v. Hall. “Our immunity is a sovereign immunity, which we have not waived outside of our borders.”
Michaela Shelton, attorney for Judge Charles H. McKenzie in Jackson County, Missouri, admitted that this is an unusual case and they’ve barely even gotten into the discovery phase.
“This is an appeal on a writ after a denial on a motion to dismiss,” she said. “[Plaintiffs] have to show that they are entitled to clear relief in this case and they can’t do that…Kansas does not have absolute immunity.”
Judge McKenzie was assigned the wrongful death case in Missouri and rejected the Kansas Department for Children and Families’ motion to dismiss that lawsuit.
Even though the case began in Kansas where the child’s remains were found, Shelton said that because the child was also injured in Missouri, that state still has the right to handle the case.
“Miscommunication was vital to that child and contributed to his injuries,” she said.
Authorities with the Kansas Department of Children and Families began investigating the case in 2011, when they received a hotline call reporting that the boy, then 2, had been left home alone by his mother.
The child was removed from the home and placed in the custody of his father, where he was abused until a Missouri caseworker intervened in 2014 and placed him at a resident treatment center. After six months he was given back to his father, who admitted that he was unable to meet the needs of his child.
Agencies in both states were informed by at least 10 hotline callers that A.J. was still being tortured and abused, but caseworkers were unable to locate the family in time to save the boy’s life.
The wrongful death lawsuit was initially filed in Jackson County, Missouri, in August 2017. An almost identical case has been filed in Kansas, but the court has yet to make a ruling on whether the state can be held liable for tortuous acts that have consequences over state lines. Attorneys have filed motions to dismiss those claims as well.
It is unclear when the Missouri Supreme Court will issue a decision in the case.