LOUISVILLE, Ky. — It's along a wooded area near the Jefferson-Bullitt County line that the body of four-year-old Serenity McKinney was found on February 20, 2022.
"There's no reason for this. There were family members that wanted her, that asked to keep her, and there's just no reason," Board-Certified Behavioral Analyst Shannon Layman to said to WHAS11 investigator, Kristin Goodwillie.
As we await the autopsy results for Serenity McKinney, there have been questions about whether the state was involved in the young girl's life. Many wonder how it took one year to list her as a missing person.
Goodwillie talked with the family and requested files from the state to figure out the steps they took to find Serenity.
Looking at the timeline, Serenity's grandparents said the child was last seen in December 2020, last heard on the phone in June 2021, then nothing. Family members said her mother, Catherine "Abby" McKinney, and Abby's boyfriend, Dakota Hill, isolated themselves.
"She started blocking everyone in June and finished blocking everyone around September. Red flags started going up," said Serenity's grandmother Aundria Wainscott.
Abby and Dakota are now charged with Serenity's murder. The family believes the couple is just one aspect of Serenity's death and that there needs to be more accountability.
"CPS needs to be held accountable for what they did. They never checked on Serenity," said Melody Roller, Serenity's other grandmother.
An aunt of Abby McKinney - who asked not to be named - shared phone records and messages she said highlight a bigger issue.
"How would I go about getting a welfare check on a child?" the aunt said in a recording released by Louisville Metro Police to Goodwillie. The aunt called LMPD's non-emergency number six times between June 26 and June 28. In those calls, you can hear how the aunt's questions turned into emotional pleas.
Aunt: "The mother refuses to let us see or even hear her on the phone and we're all very concerned for her safety."
Dispatch: "Have you contacted CPS?"
Aunt:" I haven't yet, I wanted to make contact, I wanted a police officer to physically see the child to have proof of life at this point."
Dispatch: "I understand but all they can do is knock on the door, if they don't answer the door, there's nothing they can do."
There were two requests for police to lay eyes on Serenity. However, with these call recordings, Louisville Police redacted much of the conversation with white noise. So in the June 26 call, it's impossible to know exactly what the aunt was alleging.
"It's a long story, but nobody has seen or talked to her in six months," she says in the recording. "She refuses to let anybody talk to her, see her or anything because of the controlling boyfriend she has. We don't know, we don't know what's going on and I know [redacted]. And I just want to make sure this baby is okay."
After that call and over the next three days, the aunt called back for updates, and each time, this was the response from dispatch, "It looks like they did not get an answer at the door."
Facebook messages show a conversation between the aunt and Abby where Abby says: 'Aunt-did you have the well check thing done.'
Shortly after, Serenity's great-grandmother said she called the Child Protective Services hotline to report abuse.
"There's not a confirmation the report was ever made," said Shannon Layman, who was called as the family was trying to figure out what to do next. Layman has been in social services for about twenty years and said she decided to file a CPS report online.
"I got the confirmation email that said I filed the report and that if they chose not to open or not to investigate for any reason, they would follow up with me via email - and then I never received another. Nothing from them," she said.
In the past, Layman says CPS would contact her to clarify statements made on the report. She never got any calls.
WHAS11's Kristin Goodwillie requested Serenity's files from the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services. The Cabinet denied her request, citing a statute that says a child's file can only be made public where 'child abuse or neglect has resulted in a child fatality or near fatality' and that the Cabinet is required to conduct an internal review. Until that review is complete, we can't get those records.
"My report was filed on July 8th and if I find out that she was still alive on July 8th, I'm going to be even more devastated. Because that means that she could have been saved," said Layman.
It also means we can't corroborate the family's claims that the cabinet closed their case.
RELATED: 'We know you're home': Serenity McKinney's father says he won't feel closure until everyone is held accountable in her death
We asked if social workers ever close a case without seeing a child. They sent us a regulation that states social workers must meet face-to-face with a child. At this point, they won't tell us if they ever saw Serenity.
In 2021, the last time family heard from Serenity, the state saw 208 child deaths or near-deaths related to reported abuse, according to a report from the Cabinet. The report also says that in the last five years, 71% of child deaths and near-deaths directly related to abuse already had social workers investigating.
"If it's not in the policy, I think there should be a policy that if a CPS report is filed on the child, regardless, someone should lay eyes on the child," said Layman.
We also reached out to Attorney General Daniel Cameron for an interview and he declined.
So, what are police required to do on welfare checks? We went through LMPD's standard operating procedures and there doesn't appear to be any specific guidance on what to do if a child is never seen. According to their policies, mandated by state law, if an officer suspects any kind of child abuse going on, that officer is required to report it within the department, and that must be relayed to CPS.
At this point, we haven't been granted access to those files and don't know whether those reports were ever made.
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