Swallowed by the cracks

On Nov. 19 at 3 p.m., Karen Fullmore received an unexpected phone call. She had taken the day off from the downtown Orlando law firm where she works, so her office patched the urgent call through to her cell phone. On the other end was a child's voice.

"This is Alexis, your goddaughter," the girl said, repeatedly. "This is Alexis, your goddaughter."

Fullmore suspected it was a prank call, or maybe a wrong number. She has no goddaughter. Then another unfamiliar voice came on the line, this time an adult woman.

"Karen, this is Dana," the woman said. "And that was Kennedy."

The picture came into focus. Dana Lawrence, Fullmore recalled, was the fugitive sister of her former co-worker and estranged friend Billie Lawrence. That's how Dana knew her office phone number. And Kennedy was Dana's willful-but-sweet daughter. The child, now 11 years old, had spent time with both Fullmore and Fullmore's cousin, Shannon Julian, on visits to her aunt over the past few years. But neither Fullmore nor Julian had ever met or even spoken to Dana Lawrence before; they understood her to be in and out of jail and perpetually on the run. In fact, U.S. marshals had recently tracked her down in Chicago on an outstanding warrant for breaking probation after serving time for financial crimes.

"I was stunned," Fullmore says of the surprise phone call that November morning. "I panicked, because my first thought was something horrible must have happened to Kennedy. Otherwise, why in the world would I be hearing from these people?"

Dana explained her situation. The authorities had sniffed her out and broken into her apartment when she wasn't home. A neighbor tipped her off, telling her not to return. She took to a friend's couch, but she needed a place for Kennedy to go, and her sister Billie, who already had two kids of her own, could not afford to take her in. Dana asked Kennedy where she would like to go and her response was "to be with Miss Shannon." Dana had no contact information for Shannon Julian, so she called Fullmore.

Julian was less than keen on the idea, but she asked Fullmore to relay the following message: "Tell Dana that if she put Kennedy on a plane and sent her here, I'm not going to not go pick her up."

By 10:35 p.m. the same day Kennedy — aka "Alexis Wilmers," the name on her airline ticket — was at the Southwest Airlines gate at Orlando International Airport with nothing but a coat, a bottle of Sprite, a pay-as-you-go cell phone and the Catholic school uniform she was wearing. She was in limbo.

Over the next few weeks, Fullmore and Julian became entangled in a custodial battle they never would have chosen. Attempts to legitimize their custody of Kennedy through Florida's Department of Children and Families were met with bureaucratic indifference, and direct contact with the U.S. marshal on Dana's trail for outstanding Rhode Island warrants went nowhere.

For less than one week, with DCF's approval, Kennedy was under Julian's care and staying at her house. Then, as Thanksgiving approached, the child went to spend the weekend with her aunt Billie while Julian left the state to visit family. But Kennedy was never returned to Julian after Thanksgiving, and a few weeks later, Kennedy was gone. DCF was satisfied that the child was back with her mother. Beyond that, there was little the agency could do; the courts prefer to keep children with their biological parents, even if those parents aren't exactly models of responsible behavior.

At this point Kennedy may not technically be a missing child, but nobody knows — or is willing to admit they know — where she is.

Shannon Julian didn't know what to do with the 11-year-old who showed up on her doorstep. The morning after she arrived, a Thursday, she took Kennedy to work with her. A friend advised her to call DCF and at least open a case. But she was embarrassed to be associated with a convict and afraid that Kennedy would get sucked into the DCF system.

"I was very hesitant," Julian says. "I was afraid that they would come to my house and take her."

Eventually her boss convinced her to call the DCF hotline, 1-800-96-ABUSE. After plodding through the automated switchboard, she finally got a real person on the line and explained the situation. No, Kennedy wasn't in danger, and no, she wasn't being abused. "I just want to let somebody know where she is and that she can stay here at least temporarily," Julian told DCF.

The response was less than satisfying.

"She was like, ‘Unless you're reporting that a child is in danger, I don't know what you want us to do,'" Julian recalls.

She answered, "I just want you to know that I did the right thing. I didn't purchase her on the black market. I don't want to sell her into `the sexual trade`." At that point, she was crying.

"There's no information as far as reporting a child not missing," she says. "There's no in-between."

The next morning at work, with Kennedy in tow again, a co-worker encouraged Julian to try again with DCF. This time she succeeded in convincing a DCF representative that she was the only adult Kennedy could depend on at the moment.

The agency agreed to send out a child protective investigator, Kristina Fitch, who was at the office an hour later. Julian explained that Kennedy was embarrassed, afraid for her mother and terrified of police. She probably wouldn't tell the truth about the situation or the whereabouts of her mother.

Fitch interviewed Kennedy in private. Later that afternoon, Fitch showed up at Julian's home, flipped through the cupboards, asked about potential mental health and drug issues and cleared her for temporary custody after just 10 minutes, handing her a booklet called Family Services of Greater Orlando: Resource Guide on the way out the door. Billie Lawrence, says Fullmore, apparently approved the custody over the phone with Fitch.

Julian wanted to enroll Kennedy in school, which would require the child's mother to forward her school records. Julian found Dana Lawrence's phone number on Kennedy's cell phone, but Dana was not happy to hear from her, and she was upset that DCF knew where her daughter was.

"Dana went ballistic," says Julian. "She screamed at me. She screamed at Kennedy. … She did call Kristina `Fitch` that Friday and she told me she was going to get her records and send the paperwork by FedEx over the weekend. She relaxed after I told her that it's their job to make sure that children are safe and not unaccounted for."

The school records never came.

Meanwhile, Julian had plans to go out of town for the Thanksgiving holiday and didn't think traveling to another state with an undocumented child was a good idea. So she contacted Dana's sister Billie to see if she would look after Kennedy from Nov. 24-29. Billie agreed, and Julian made arrangements to leave a grocery store gift card and some cash to cover Kennedy's expenses. She also packed a week's worth of new clothes for the girl.

She met Billie at a local Target to drop the child off. Julian recalls Billie saying that she could "finally buy toilet paper" with the money intended for Kennedy. That was the last time she saw Kennedy.

Dana Lawrence's true identity is hard to pin down. She's adopted a number of last names over the years and has made temporary homes in Washington, Illinois, Ohio, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania and Nevada.

Orlando resident Kevin Little knew Dana briefly in 2001, when she frequented a downtown Orlando watering hole where Little was a bartender. Over a period of two weeks, she laid down $2,400 in tips, charging them to a Gold American Express business card under the company name of Lucasfilms.

"I thought I had found my ticket out of here," he says.

The two had a one-night stand following a work party, he says. She stayed at his home for a few days while he was out of town, but Little's roommates kicked her out for going through his things, and then she disappeared. A month later, she called to say she was pregnant.

Little's daughter, whose name is Avery, is now 8 years old and living with his mother in Pennsylvania. When Avery was born, he says, Dana refused to do a paternity test. She also harassed the Little family with phone calls until they called police and hired a private investigator, who found "all sorts of financial crimes," he says.

In 2005, Dana was arrested in Rhode Island. The Littles tracked down Avery and were able to obtain the results of a paternity test. Over Dana's protests, a Rhode Island judge ordered custody be awarded to the father.

"She's done so many things," says Little. "I'm blown away by the stuff that she could continue to do."

Little's mother, who was always suspicious of Dana, started a file on her granddaughter's mom on the consumer complaint website Ripoff Report. Entries there paint an unflattering picture of Dana Lawrence.

"This woman is crazy! If you knew her in the past I would suggest that you stay the hell away from her! She has learned absolutely nothing from jail," reads one entry from 2007. "Now she's on the run again and even more desperate than ever before. If she had any decency at all she would get a job and send some money to those poor children. It starts with a cell phone and before you know it she's leached her way into your life with her pathological lies and her psychopath ‘I'm so considerate' smile."

Other posts point to her whereabouts at various times, all with disdain for her actions and concern for her kids.

"Avery `Kennedy's sister` is a beautiful little girl who deserves the safety and security of a balanced healthy home. Does anyone know who is looking after her sister Kennedy?" asks another post.

Lawrence's current legal imbroglio stems from a 2005 arrest for charges of obtaining money under false pretenses in Rhode Island. She served the better part of 2006 in the state department of corrections. Kennedy spent that year with Billie's family in Orlando. In January 2007, a warrant was issued for Dana in Rhode Island after she failed to appear at a meeting with her probation officer. That's when the U.S. Marshals Office became involved.

When Karen Fullmore got the call from Dana that November afternoon, she made a point of keeping notes. Fullmore wanted to know the truth about Kennedy and whether the Chicago break-in story was valid. She got in contact with Rhode Island deputy U.S. marshal C.J. Wyant in December and received the confirmation she needed.

Fullmore's e-mail exchanges with Wyant detail the fruits of her own investigation. She located some of Lawrence's Chicago business associates and spoke with them. She found Dana's online dating profiles. She spoke to former love interests, including Little. She did the work that nobody else seemed to be doing, because she was concerned that Dana would come back to Florida to retrieve Kennedy and no one would ever know.

Wyant, who did not comment for this story because it involves an open case, says only that he is tracking Dana for the outstanding 2007 warrants. It doesn't help that state agencies like DCF are working at cross- purposes from his own, he adds. A child sent on an airplane to live with relative strangers should be considered missing, he says, especially when the parent sending the child is a wanted criminal.

Julian returned to Orlando on Nov. 29. While she was gone for Thanksgiving, her communications with Kennedy had dwindled to perfunctory "How are you doing?" text messages. By Thanksgiving Day, there was no response to her texts at all.

"Saturday I came home fully expecting to pick her up," she says. "They said, ‘Don't bother.'"

That night, Dana advised both Fullmore and Julian via speakerphone that Kennedy would be staying with Billie indefinitely. She also outlined a plan in which Billie would be given custody in the interest of suing Kennedy's birth father for retroactive child support payments, according to Fullmore and Julian. The sisters would divide the spoils.

"I know that Billie had talked to `DCF investigator` Kristina Fitch and said that she couldn't care for Kennedy," says Fullmore. "She told Dana that. She told `Julian` that. We said to Dana, ‘Is this really the best thing for Kennedy?' And she said that Billie would get some kind of advance payment, they had some scheme planned."

For her part, Billie says otherwise. "Karen and I have background. I tried to work with `Julian`. Karen wouldn't let that happen, so I took Kennedy. That's it," she says.

After failed attempts to meet up with Billie or Kennedy to hand over the girl's newly purchased belongings, Julian made another call to Fitch to let her know that Kennedy was no longer staying with her, that Billie had possibly aided Dana in evading authorities in the past, and that the U.S. marshal had been contacted. Fitch had heard nothing of the custodial exchange, despite assurances from Dana to the contrary.

Karen Fullmore says DCF went to Billie's home to investigate, ultimately clearing it for Kennedy to stay. Meanwhile, Julian tried to contact Kennedy's father. "I don't know what Dana and Billie's intentions are, but they are not pure," she wrote in an e-mail. "They may try to terminate your parental rights and have Billie adopt her, I just don't know. But I've read enough about Dana to know that nothing she does is for the good of her child. Dana says that you have never wanted anything to do with Kennedy — I don't know how accurate that is. All I know is that there is a little girl that needs a father right now."

She received no response.

Fullmore and Julian only spoke once more to Fitch at DCF. In that conversation, Fitch said that Dana had made arrangements to come to Florida and pick up Kennedy and that her case would soon be closed.

Fullmore spoke with a DCF supervisor about the case, who questioned why Kennedy had been allowed to reside with Billie in the first place, considering Billie's previous statements that she could not afford custody of another child. The supervisor said she would put the case "on alert."

On Jan. 7, DCF supervisor Carmen Portela told Fullmore that Billie had already reported to DCF that Kennedy had left Florida with Dana, and that Billie had no idea where they had gone.

Billie says Kennedy is now safe. She won't say if the child is with Dana. Her opinions of her sister are mixed.

"Dana is a woman. She makes her own decisions. She's made a lot of bad decisions. Do I agree with them? No. Do I support her? No. Am I angry with her? Yes. Do I love her? Yes," she says. "My involvement with Dana: I don't have any involvement with Dana."

She says Kennedy is not in a "horrible, horrible situation" like many other children out there, and that as a "good mother" of two herself, she would have hoped for better for her niece.

"I really wish things were different," she says. "I love my niece and I love my sister, and I wish she would get help. That's the bottom line regardless of anything else. I love them very, very much."

Karen Fullmore sent a complaint letter detailing the case to Verne Melvin, acting regional director of DCF for the Ninth Judicial Circuit. Two weeks later, on Feb. 12, she got a call back from Maxine McGregor, DCF's Ninth Circuit client relations coordinator. McGregor explained that although she didn't know much about the particular case, Kennedy being allowed to live with a family member and have a "roof over her head" was good enough for DCF.

"We're not God," she said, adding that DCF has been working closely with the U.S. marshals office to find Dana.

Wyant, the marshal assigned to the case, says there hasn't been any cooperation from DCF.

DCF central region communications director Carrie Hoeppner contends that on issues like Kennedy's, the agency's hands are tied.

"One thing I need you to do, and I have to do every day, is to put your own personal bias, your own level as far as how children should be cared for versus not, aside," she says. "That's really one of the biggest challenges we have here. We have to erase our own standard of living sometimes. An individual `who` has been incarcerated, charged with a crime, or is facing a charge of a crime does not automatically lose the care and custody of their children."

The state agency, which acts in 20 circuits in six regions, operates on a $3 billion budget, with about $100 million of that going toward its protective investigation programs. According to Hoeppner, each child protective investigator has an active caseload of more than 12 open cases in Orange County or 15 in Osceola County. The agency investigated 58,215 allegations of abuse in their central region alone last year. They have to remain focused on the lines of DCF's jurisdiction, she says.

"We are not a law enforcement agency. We are a child safety, child abuse agency, and so we would get involved in the event that there was an allegation that a parent was abusing a child. That would be physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse or abandonment."

By that standard, Kennedy was not abused. Faced with the facts, though — that Kennedy was not in school, that her mother is a fugitive of questionable means — Hoeppner suggests that Fullmore and Julian might have done well to get law enforcement involved.

But that probably would have led to a dead end, too. According to literature provided by the Orlando Police Department, officers may take children into custody when there is a threat of danger, but they are then instructed to wait with the child until a DCF protective investigator arrives.

"I think that what you're looking at is a very good glimpse of the challenges that we face every day," says Hoeppner. "The complexity and the emotion. These individuals sound like they want what's best and want to care for this child, they're worried about her. I certainly, certainly understand that. I think the difficulty with this case is you have a mom who has custody, who doesn't have any substantiated allegations of abuse against her, who took her child back."

That "defining line of engagement" has been called into question before. In 2007, the agency released a report of its own accord regarding a lack of urgency in investigating the case of 2-year-old Pinellas County toddler Courtney Clark. Courtney's mother, also arrested for fraud, removed her child from the state-approved home of a family friend and transported her to Wisconsin.

When authorities found Courtney, she was in a house with her mother, there was a slain woman buried in the backyard and that woman's son was injured and crouching in a closet. Even if Courtney had been left with approved family friends, she may still have been in danger. The state-approved couple looking after her had two complaints registered against them for sexual abuse. DCF failed to act.

That case led DCF to publicly suggest that legislation should be forthcoming requiring law enforcement agencies in Florida to file missing persons reports on all unaccounted-for children, regardless of their custodial status. That never happened.

Still, Hoeppner cites recent studies showing that kids who are removed from their biological families run a higher risk for homelessness, substance abuse and mental issues. She says that DCF's role is to help keep families together, with the added caveat of "safely."

"We can't just chase ‘what if?' questions," she says. "What if nothing happens?"

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