Death of 10-year-old locked in box prompted changes to AZ child welfare system

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Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery (top left), Dept. of Child Safety Director Gregory McKay (bottom left), Ame Deal (middle), John Allen (top right), Sammantha Allen (bottom right) (Source: 3TV/CBS 5) Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery (top left), Dept. of Child Safety Director Gregory McKay (bottom left), Ame Deal (middle), John Allen (top right), Sammantha Allen (bottom right) (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
Sanaa Cunningham, 7, died in February 2017 and her father and stepmom are facing charges. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5) Sanaa Cunningham, 7, died in February 2017 and her father and stepmom are facing charges. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
Germayne and Lisa Cunningham (Source: 3TV/CBS 5) Germayne and Lisa Cunningham (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) -

The death of a 10-year-old girl who had been locked in a box not only put two people on Arizona’s death row and three more in prison, it changed the way child abuse cases are handled, Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery said Tuesday morning.

“It’s not often when we can look at a specific criminal prosecution and be able to tie it back to the genesis of changes in public policy and to see how it was a catalyst for change,” Montgomery said during a news conference.

[RAW VIDEO: Watch entire news conference]

[WATCH: "This is not a victory lap," Montgomery said.]

Ame Deal’s body was found in a box at her family’s home the morning of Tuesday, July 12, 2011. Her family initially said Ame had hidden in the box during a game of hide and seek.

"The victim in this case has taken a lot of pride in the past, in difficult hiding locations and remaining there even after parents were looking for her," Sgt. Trent Crump, a public information officers with the Phoenix Police Department at the time, said in the early hours of the investigation.

[SPECIAL SECTION: Child locked in box trial]

At that point, police only knew what Ame’s family first told them.

As detectives investigated Ame’s death – and her life -- the truth came out and it was a story of “horrific torture and murder.” Ame's death was ruled a homicide and arrests were made.

[RELATED: 'Hide-and-seek' death ruled a homicide; 4 arrested]

While Arizona authorities were not aware of Ame’s situation until it was too late, there had been contact with child welfare agencies in two other states.

Less than a month ago, an Arizona  jury sentenced John Allen to death after finding him guilty of first-degree murder, child abuse and conspiracy to commit child abuse.

Allen’s wife, Sammantha Allen, Ame’s cousin, was convicted of first-degree murder over the summer and then sentenced to death, as well.

[RELATED: Arizona woman becomes 55th sent to death row in US]

Three more of Ame’s relatives were convicted of child abuse and, as Department of Child Safety Director Gregory McKay, who was the lead investigator in the Deal case said, “continue to rot in prison for a long time.”

“[Ame's] death was not in vain in helping to serve as a catalyst for change,” Montgomery said describing the changes made to the state’s child welfare system, which “utterly failed” children who were being abused, children like Ame.

The first wave of change started about a month after Ame’s death.

“We did see, after a concerted effort to raise awareness in the community about the need to report child abuse …, we saw a huge increase in reports of child abuse claims or allegations to Arizona’s hotline,” Montgomery said. “We were learning then, too, that Arizona’s hotline was not engineered to perform like we needed it to. There were no systems in place to properly screen cases or to get case workers or investigators out into the field to check into the facts ….”

Arizona had gone through these iterations in the past and all it had been really was an exercise in moving the chairs around on the deck of the Titanic.

In October 2011, then Gov. Jan Brewer announced the formation of a Child Safety Task Force headed by Montgomery.

“This was not going to be just an exercise in discussing issues without coming up with concrete plans for how to effect real change,” Montgomery said. “Arizona had gone through these iterations in the past and all it had been really was an exercise in moving the chairs around on the deck of the Titanic.”

In December, that task force released recommendations including structural changes in how child abuse investigations were handled.

“We started to see much better outcomes in terms of confirming or denying [abuse] allegations …,” Montgomery said.

Nearly two years later, there was another bombshell. It was discovered that more than 6,000 cases in the hands of Child Protective Services had gone uninvestigated.

[RELATED: Governor Brewer responds to report of 6,000 CPS cases uninvestigated (Nov. 21, 2013)]

Five senior workers were fired in the wake of the scandal. They later sued, alleging wrongful termination and claiming that they were made scapegoats.

[RELATED: Arizona high court won't review child welfare worker firings]

It was nearly a year before those thousands of "not investigated" cases were closed.

“It was, I think, a violation of the community’s trust that the efforts that had gone into identifying things that needed to be done differently were being done differently but weren’t being done differently to change outcomes and results," Montgomery said.

The next big wave of change began in January 2014.

“I think there was a collective assessment that CPS was incapable of … making real changes,” Montgomery said.

The new Department of Child Services – a standalone agency removed from the Department of Economic Security – was created in May.

[RELATED: Is Arizona DCS more concerned with clearing cases than child safety? (July 5, 2015)]

“The unfortunate reality of our world is that children will die at the hands of abusers,” McKay said.

[WATCH: McKay runs down changes in child welfare since Ame's death]

Children like Ame endure “chronic maltreatment … and unimaginable cruelty.”

“As the homicide detective that investigated Ame’s life and death, I was faced with this immensely sad revelation that the best moment of Ame Deal’s life was the moment of her death,” he said before running down the specific details of the abuse she suffered.

While there have been changes – significant ones – in Arizona’s child welfare system, Montgomery stressed that there is more work that needs to be done.

“This is not a victory lap,” he said. "We still have cases involving horrific abuse and the deaths of children.”

Case in point is the Dec. 1 indictment of a former Phoenix police detective and his wife in the death of his 7-year-old daughter.

In keeping with the systemic changes he outlined, Montgomery said, more information was released about the death of Sanaa Cunningham Tuesday morning.

[READ MORE: Mother demands answers in death of 7-year-old daughter]

Our Donna Rossi had been trying to get information about Sanaa’s death in February and the subsequent indictment of Germayne and Lisa Cunningham for a couple of weeks, but was repeatedly denied information.

“Donna, that’s my fault,” Montgomery said. “That’s prosecutors wanting to make sure that the information that was going to be released wouldn’t impact the case as it goes forward.”

While the Cunninghams have been indicted on charges of child abuse and first-degree murder, they have not been arrested. They have a court date to answer the charges.

Although the Ame Deal and Sanaa Cunningham cases were both discussed Tuesday, Montgomery said he did not want to “draw any specific evidentiary comparisons” between the two.

“We have just secured the indictment [of the Cunninghams] and we are moving forward with the prosecution,” he said of Sanaa’s case.

[T]he best moment of Ame Deal’s life was the moment of her death.

“For however far we may have come in the last six years [since Ame's death] – however far we may be today – there’s still more that has to be done,” Montgomery said. “I still have to acknowledge, too, that we will continue to struggle with the evil side of human nature that sees small human beings as objects of taking out rage, frustration or simply failing to do the most basic of things that a parent should do for their child. And every time that happens, we hurt. We’re all a little bit less for that because we failed to live up to the most basic of expectations of adults within our society.”

Both Montgomery and McKay said the onus is on everybody to protect Arizona's children and that we all have a duty to report suspected abuse.


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