A relative who helped raise a missing 5-year-old Glendale girl says she called Child Protective Services several times to report her suspicions that the girl and her older sister were being abused.
Mahogany Hightower, one of four cousins who took care of Jahessye Shockley for the first four years of her life, told me she last saw the little girl in April, at a family barbecue.
“She cried really bad, telling us she wanted us to take her home,” Hightower said. “She wanted to go home now. We told her you can't come home with us now but you will later. She goes, “I can't go later. I've got to go now.' ”
It is now 11 days since Jahessye disappeared, vanishing out of thin air while her mother, Jerice Hunter, was out doing errands.
Hunter, who is eight months pregnant, refused to talk to me Friday about the concerns of Hightower and other family members — the ones who took care of her daughter while she was in a California prison for beating her other children. Glendale police say that Hunter isn't a suspect.
“I don't care about what she (Hightower) told you,” Hunter said, clearly agitated by my call. “I don't communicate with those people. Those people are not credible. They're angry, OK?”
Then she hung up on me.
Hunter was pregnant with Jhessye when she was charged with child abuse in California.
According to a Solano County Sheriff's report, Hunter's mother, Shirley Johnson, called police in October 2005, after her grandchildren told her they'd been abused by their mother and their new stepfather, George Shockley. Police found the younger two girls, ages 3 and 7, with fresh welts and cuts. The 7-year-old was covered in scars, the kind that would be delivered by an electrical cord.
The oldest, a then-14-year-old boy, told investigators that his mother routinely punched him and whipped him with sticks and that she also beat his sisters, usually with an extension cord, but he'd never told anyone.
“Hunter told him if he were to say anything, all of the children would be taken away and it would be his fault,” police wrote.
The children were immediately taken away that day, once police saw the injuries to the two youngest girls and heard details of the 7-year-old being beaten the previous day.
The child told police she was running around the master bedroom to escape a whipping from her mother.
“Hunter subsequently summoned assistance from Shockley who walked into the room and held the little girl down on the bed by grabbing both of her wrists,” the report says. “The seven year old was naked and facing upwards as her mother repeatedly whipped her with the extension cord across her stomach, upper legs, pubic area and on her back side. Raised bloodied welts, scars and lacerations were found … all about these areas of the seven-year-old's body.”
Hunter pleaded no contest to four counts of corporal punishment of a child. She went to prison shortly after giving birth to Jhessye in Arizona. While the grandmother took custody of the older children in California, Hightower says she and three other cousins took Jahessye.
Hunter served about half of her eight-year sentence before being paroled in May 2010, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. (Shockley remains in prison.) She was given unsupervised parole.
Hightower says Hunter and the child who had been so severely beaten came to Arizona shortly after she was paroled. She says the mother wanted Jhessye and became angry when the four cousins wouldn't immediately hand her over. Hightower says Jahessye was returned to her mother on Aug. 18, 2010, after police showed up and said they had to surrender the child.
Phoenix police spokesman Steve Martos couldn't confirm that police were dispatched but added that a report wouldn't necessarily have been written.
Hightower says she had concerns about the older child's wellbeing and called California CPS in February.
“I couldn't understand why Jerice was able was to get (the older child) back due to the fact that abuse to (the older child) was the reason why she was in prison from the beginning,” she said.
She says a California CPS worker told her that the agency was no longer involved and advised her to call Arizona CPS.
Hightower said she talked with an Arizona CPS caseworker several times between February and early May, to report the family's concerns that the two girls were being abused, including suspicions that Jahessye's two bottom teeth had been knocked out. She says the caseworker visited the older girl's school and Hunter's home but said there was nothing she could do.
“She basically said that the kids told her there was no abuse,” Hightower said.
CPS declined to comment on Friday. The agency has removed Hunter's other children and put them into foster care.
Hightower is astonished that authorities allowed a child to be left with a mother who repeatedly whipped and scarred her.
“I want it to be known that CPS dropped the ball,” she said. “That in California, they dropped the ball. In Arizona, they dropped the ball. Even the police department, they dropped the ball.”
Whether any of that had anything to do with Jahessye's disappearance, however, is yet to be seen.
While Hightower believes that the children were being abused, she's not ready to say that abuse is linked to Jhessye's disappearance.
Like the rest of us, she's unsure what to make of a 5-year-old disappearing into thin air. Like the rest of us, she's holding out hope that her little cousin will be found, alive and well.
“I really don't know what to think,” she says. “I know there was abuse in the home and I reported it.”