Newschannel 6 Exclusive: Innocence Lost

Over the past six years, an average of five children have died from abuse or neglect every day. Most of those deaths happened in the Lone Star state. Each year for the past seven, more than 200 children died from abuse or neglect in Texas, and a recent report shows nearly half of them belonged to families that had a history with Texas Child Protective Services.

Two of those families and tragic deaths happened this past year, right here in Texoma.

"Who would they cling to the most? Their mother, and then their mother turns out to be the person who is supposed to take care of them who is supposed to protect and love them is their tormentor," said Shelley Blevins. She is the grandmother of a child who died as a result of abuse.

In 2008, more than 770 children were confirmed victims of abuse or neglect in Wichita County. In 77 percent of Texas cases that end in death, the parent is the killer. Five-year-old Kati Earnest fell victim to this statistic. She had no one to speak up for her and now she's no longer here.

"She was so full of life, she wasn't shy at all," Blevins said.

Blevins is Kati's grandmother and mother of Kati's father, Nelson Cardwell, Junior. Blevins said that Kati's parents struggled for years to agree on a visitation schedule, and the two families have always had a strained relationship. November of 2008 was the last time Blevins saw her granddaughter.

"She said 'well, don't go,' and I said, 'it's OK, because I'm going to see you now,' and I just grabbed her and I held her and she wrapped her arms around my neck and she kissed me on the cheek and whispered, 'I miss you' and I said, 'I miss you too and I will see you very, very soon.' That's the last time I saw her," Blevins said.

Eight months later, on a day most of us celebrate with cookouts and fireworks, Kati's short life came to a tragic end. She was killed on the fourth of July and, according to investigators, at the hands of her mother.

Kristina Earnest brought her five-year-old daughter to the Wilbarger General Hospital just before midnight, claiming she had found her face down in a bathtub of water.  But the 40 to 50 bruises on little Kati's body told a different story.  Kati was pronounced dead in the first half hour after arriving at the hospital. The autopsy showed her cause of death was blunt force trauma to the abdomen. Kristina later admitted to striking her little girl five times with a closed fist, at a force great enough to split Kati's spleen in two.

Kati's grandmother remembers the phone call that forever changed her life.

"She just kept saying 'no ma'am, you don't understand, she's dead.'  And then everything went a little black for me and then my son came over and there were just no words to describe how my son felt, and how I felt and how I still feel today," Blevins said.

Kristina and her boyfriend Tommy Castro now both sit behind bars in the Wilbarger County Jail,  just a few hundred yards from the very apartment where Kati was brutally murdered. When Kati died, Kristina, originally from Amarillo, had just moved her three children to Vernon to live with Castro.

Blevins said, "I can't even wrap my mind around what they did.  I don't understand.  I can't comprehend it."

Court records obtained by Newschannel 6 show Kristina Earnest had two CPS investigations involving her three children prior to Kati's death. One of physical neglect of Kati and her younger sister in Randall county. The other for neglectful supervision and physical abuse of her son. Both investigations were ruled out because CPS could not find evidence to take action.

Lee Ann Marsh is the former assistant district attorney for CPS cases in Wichita County. She now works as a private attorney who represents families that need assistance with CPS cases, so she knows all sides of the system well.

"Younger children generally don't have the voice and means to communicate if something is wrong in the home.  They can't tell you, hey, mom and dad are hitting me or mom and dad are sexually abusing me or dad's coming into my bed every night.  They don't have the ability to do that," Marsh said.

The night of Kati's death, it was found her one-year-old brother also showed visible signs of abuse. He is now in the custody of Kristina's sister.

"There are a couple of red flags in this scenario. Number one, they were moving frequently so you don't have any one particular local agency seeing what's going on. Number two, several reports, where there's smoke there's fire," Marsh said.

Those we talked with in the industry have concerns the cracks in the system are with the Department of Family and Protective Services Family Based Safety Services program. Safety services workers monitor troubled families to make sure they are participating in parenting classes or counseling. The agency's goal is to remove fewer children from their homes. Despite the hundreds of additional staff to the state program in the past few years, it's development has resulted in a rising case-load for safety services staff.

Marsh said, "We're failing in our follow through with these families because maybe we need to watch them longer after we put children back in the home.  See if we can do follow up to make sure after we return kids to home.  They're not reverting to old ways in six or eight months or a year.  Maybe we need to follow up better."

Less than two months after Kati's death yet another tragedy struck -- this time in Wichita Falls. Police say Benjamin Jerome Prince killed his toddler, Tremain Prince, striking him several times with a handgun and claw hammer. According to investigators, he also shot and killed his brother John Prince. Tremain's family too, had a history with CPS.

Last April, CPS received a complaint call regarding physical abuse allegations at the home. However, there was no investigation. We wanted to know why, so we pushed Department of Family and Protective Services official Marleah Eisner for answers.

"CPS workers receive phone calls frequently that really don't meet that mandate so we're charged with protecting the unprotected and we're not obligated to interfere in families lives when abuse or neglect has not occurred and often times we won't have the information sent to us that meets that criteria.  In this particular case, the information we received did not meet the level of abuse or neglect as defined in the Texas Family Code. Therefore, an investigation was not launched," Eisner said.

CPS followed its policies and did all they could given the circumstances. So, where do we go from here, how can we prevent this from happening to other children?

"CPS, everyone I've met and worked with they really truly are trying their best I think it's up to neighbors and friends and family not to be afraid to call in if they suspect something.  The report is anonymous and it can not come back at you and say you filed falsely. If you suspect something, call it in.  It does take a village but it takes a village who cares not just a village who wants to look the other way," Marsh said.

That is one grandmother's plea.

"When you beat a child, they scream.  It's not the same scream as a tantrum or a sick child.  It is a different kind of scream so if you are hearing things or see things then do something about it.  Don't look the other way, because I'm sure a lot of people do that and you Just can't because it's somebody's granddaughter or little girl or boy and you might just save their life," Blevins said.

Below are links to the arrest warrant and other documents concerning these cases.

Petitioner's Affidavit (page 2)

Petitioner's Affidavit (page 5)