Signs of abuse never reported in Owen Reak case
Mommy. Hot. Ouch.
Those were the words of 19-month-old Owen Daniel Reak — a precocious ball of activity who was walking by the time he was nine months old — in his final days.
His vocabulary had dwindled since Christmas, when he spoke of happier things, according to his mother, 23-year-old Amber Reak. By spring 2012, clumps of hair were falling off Owen’s head. Relatives told investigators they saw bruises on his body around the time 26-year-old Justin Keel came into Owen’s life, starting about two months before the boy was killed.
The hair loss and bruising on the child’s face — observed by an unnamed doctor during an appointment that happened sometime before Owen’s death on April 11, 2012 — were not reported to the Mesa County Department of Human Services, according to a fatality report issued recently by the Colorado Department of Human Services.
On the morning of April 10, as Owen was bleeding to death internally at Community Hospital, doctors performed an X-ray and concluded his ailment was the flu.
While finding no violation of law or state rules in the handling of Owen’s case by Mesa County, the Colorado Department of Human Services said in its fatality report it will provide medical consultants to help train Mesa County’s medical community on identifying suspected child abuse and neglect, assessment, treatment and mandated reporting processes.
“What we’re trying to get (the medical community) to do is, first, report it to us as quickly as possible,” said Mesa County Human Services Director Tracey Garchar. “Secondly, don’t make a medical assessment that rules out child abuse. If they make a statement that an injury could have happened under normal course of parenting, we don’t have a leg to stand on legally.”
MEDICAL NEGLECT ‘INCONCLUSIVE’
Justin Keel was sentenced to 36 years in prison under a plea agreement with the Mesa County District Attorney’s Office in which prosecutors dismissed a first-degree murder charge, ensuring he’d avoid a life sentence in prison.
Nineteen days before Owen was fatally injured, Keel and Amber Reak were under county scrutiny.
The state fatality report found allegations of medical neglect by Owen’s mother, Amber, were “inconclusive” relating to a broken leg suffered by Owen.
“I don’t blame myself, but I feel like I failed,” Reak said in a recent interview with The Daily Sentinel. “He (Keel) always had a logical explanation for everything and I just believed it.”
A state-mandated child-abuse reporter, who isn’t identified in the state report, reported to Mesa County on March 22, 2012, that Reak sought treatment for her son’s broken leg on March 15, 2012, four days after it happened.
The mother had reported a babysitter was watching Owen when the boy’s foot got caught in a high chair. Reak wasn’t home at the time.
She took the boy to a chiropractor on March 15, who explained everything was fine and recommended ice packs for the leg.
“The mother stated she would have just taken the child to the emergency room had she been home but she was worried about not having insurance,” the state report said.
The report said after observing the child was still limping after the chiropractor visit, and after she called to verify she did, in fact, have insurance coverage, Reak sought treatment from a primary care physician.
Reak also admitted to lying initially to a caseworker, explaining Keel — not a babysitter, as she first reported — was watching Owen when he was hurt because “she didn’t want her husband and his family to find out she was in another relationship,” the report said.
“(Keel) described how the child was trying to climb out of the high chair and got his foot stuck at the same time (Keel) was trying to pull the child from the high chair,” the report said.
Reak and Keel said they got rid of the high chair.
Reak’s lie, and the couple’s admitted disposal of the high chair, raised enough suspicion to open a human services assessment. Observations of home life revealed no immediate red flags.
“The caseworker (during an in-home visit March 23) observed the child snuggle with his mother, toss a ball between the mother and the caseworker and smile when (Keel) talked to him,” the report said.
Three days after the in-home visit, the caseworker called Reak and instructed her Keel wasn’t to watch the child until an assessment was completed.
Among “deficiencies” highlighted in the fatality report, the report noted a caseworker didn’t check Keel’s background once it was learned he had parental responsibilities with Owen. That, the report surmised, was possibly “accounted for in that the (DHS) assessment phase was not yet complete.”
“Subsequently,” the report reads, “a background check revealed the boyfriend had no prior criminal history.”
Court records reviewed by the Sentinel, however, reveal otherwise. The records show while under Mesa County pretrial services supervision for his second alcohol-related driving offense in Mesa County in less than three years, Keel flunked four court-ordered tests for alcohol, marijuana or opiates between June and September 2011.
Keel was sentenced to two years probation after pleading guilty to driving while ability impaired and was assessed a fine of $674, which he started paying in December 2011.
EXAM DIAGNOSED FLU, NOT POSSIBLE ABUSE
Reak said she was “running late” for work when she chose to let Keel, despite the prior parenting agreement, watch Owen in his high chair on the morning of April 10, 2012. She was in the shower when she said she heard two loud booms.
Owen’s father and relatives frantically phoned the county caseworker on Owen’s case three times in the span of 90 minutes that afternoon, asking about the case and reporting bruising observed on the boy that day, according to the state report.
The voicemail messages weren’t retrieved until the next morning, after Owen had died.
Owen was admitted to Community Hospital’s emergency room that morning. Records indicate he was lethargic, nauseous and vomiting, and he was eventually diagnosed with flu-like symptoms.
“The medical records indicate the emergency room staff noted bruising on the child’s face, although it is not clear from the records whether or not the medical staff asked about the bruising,” the state report said. “No report was made to (DHS) by the hospital.”
The report later adds, “The abdominal exam conducted on the child in the hours before his death was not well documented in the medical chart and was not recognized as possible child abuse.”
Owen, who was punched or kicked hard enough to rupture his intestines, bled to death internally over 18 hours. The hospital X-ray didn’t catch the bleeding.
Dr. Donald Nicolay, Community Hospital’s chief medical officer, said extensive reviews of Owen’s case have left him “very pleased” with the hospital’s performance.
“I can’t be specific as far as precise things,” Nicolay said. “What I’d like to say is there are different things that can present (symptomatically) very similar, and it’s almost impossible to distinguish between them sometimes.”
Nicolay suggested a lack of documentation, noted in the state report, may account for the difference between doctors’ electronic reports, as opposed to the way they used to do them: hand-written reports that allowed for more details.
“It shouldn’t reflect on the quality of the exam,” he said.
Suspected abuse is reported routinely at Community Hospital, while any trauma observed on an infant child in the emergency room should spur questioning by staff, he said.
Nicolay added Community Hospital reached out to experts at Children’s Hospital in Aurora to review Owen’s case, seeking guidance on what might have been done differently.
“They were unable to provide us with anything we didn’t already have in place,” he said. “We take these tragedies very seriously and do all we can to do our best going forward.”
Reak said she’s pondering a lawsuit against the hospital.
BOYFRIEND CLAIMED ABUSIVE PAST
While in the process of divorcing Owen’s father in October 2011, Amber Reak met Keel at a Halloween party. He pursued her, she says, and they didn’t start getting serious until January. Keel moved into her apartment within a month.
“The attraction? I was living in a camper at my father’s house,” she said. At the time, she was a full-time student at Colorado Mesa University while working two jobs.
“I felt like I was failing Owen then and that was my rock-bottom. Justin said, ‘Let’s build each other up ... I’m going through a rough time, too,’ ” she said.
“I should have never involved myself. I knew he was trouble.”
Keel seemed to embrace Owen at first. Reak said she brought the toddler along on their first date, and Keel laughed off Owen’s climbing onto a dinner table that night.
Reak, however, said Keel soon after complained about the boy “not liking” him.
On March 6, 2012, court records said, Reak described Keel as “shaking” after spanking Owen hard enough to bruise his buttocks.
“I’d left for 10 minutes,” she said.
Keel explained he’d “panicked” and acknowledged he’d hit the boy “too hard.”
She said she admonished an apologetic Keel, who pledged he’d never intentionally hurt the boy.
“I wanted to believe he was telling the truth,” Reak said. “He told me his dad was abusive toward him.”
Reak said she aspires to be a child-abuse prevention advocate. She talks of creating a website where young mothers can learn about spotting warning signs she might have missed.
“There’s a reason I chose (Keel). There’s a reason I let him talk me out of things,” Reak said, who added she’s regularly seen a therapist since Owen’s death.
“I don’t know,” she said. “We’ll know when (the therapist) fixes me.”