After 68 police reports, Ankeny Iowa couple who adopted 9 kids charged with abuse

After 68 police reports, Ankeny Iowa couple who adopted 9 kids charged with abuse

Why are children in foster care?

by Lee Rood of The Des Moines Register

An Ankeny couple who adopted nine children with disabilities from foster care has been charged with child endangerment for allegations of physical abuse.

John Elmer Bell, 55, and Joyce Marie Bell, 57, were booked into the Polk County Jail Thursday afternoon, on charges of felony child endangerment causing bodily injury.

The arrests came hours after Ankeny police turned over 68 police reports in response to a Reader’s Watchdog probe into years of reported child abuse in the Ankeny couple’s home.

Krystal Bell

Krystal Bell, the couple’s 21-year-old adopted daughter, questioned why the couple hadn’t been arrested after she provided authorities four expletive-laden videos depicting physical abuse of her adoptive brother.

Krystal Bell provided the videos to Watchdog.

One video turned over to Ankeny police shows John Bell and his 16-year-old mildly autistic son screaming and hitting each other in their living room earlier this month.

The teen wails in a high pitch as his father restrains his flailing hands, then repeatedly hits the boy with the back of a hand and a fist.

“I will hit you in the f—ing mouth,” Bell threatens, rocking back and forth on the couch, clutching a knee and crying.

“I’ll kill you!” the smaller boy screams back.

Bell had posted the videos over the past year on Facebook. Police were told about video depicting child abuse at least as far back as March 2016, Ankeny police reports show.

Some offenders specifically seek victims with disabilities because they are perceived to be more vulnerable and unable to report.Liz Cox of Prevent Child Abuse Iowa

The Bells adopted children with disabilities who range now in age from 16 to 38, according to the couple’s 24-year-old adopted daughter, Makayla.

“Caller stated that she is being abused by her parents, and she will not go back home,” one March 2009 police report involving Makayla Bell said.

A domestic report from March notes: “This is the 9th trip since Oct. 6, 2016.”

Several people, including Krystal and Makayla, told Watchdog before the arrests that they had reported ongoing abuse to state workers while the Bells, who were former foster parents, collected thousands in subsidies over the years.

Allegations of physical abuse against Joyce Bell caused the children to be temporarily removed in 2010, but no criminal charges were filed.

Most of the children were returned to the couple’s three-bedroom home, the sisters said.

The videos of inside the Bells’ home shot discreetly over the past year by 21-year-old Krystal prompted Iowa’s Department of Human Services to remove two remaining teenage brothers, both adopted, after a July 12 child abuse call, according to the sisters and police reports.

Those teens have been placed temporarily in a shelter, the sisters said.

John and Joyce Bell could not be reached for comment because they were being held in the Polk County Jail.

Iowa’s troubling foster care abuse cases

Why are children in foster care?

The Bell case in some ways mirrors the recent child abuse cases that ended with the deaths of Iowa teens Natalie Finn and Sabrina Ray, who also were adopted out of foster care. Reports of abuse were made against both parents before the teens’ deaths.

Tonya Gibson, birth mother of Krystal and two teenage boys who were adopted by the Bells, is outraged that state social workers and police took so long to intervene on behalf of so many disabled children.

“It takes a child to be severely harmed or killed before they do something, and they say I’m a bad parent?” she told Watchdog.

Gibson, 42, of Lockridge, said she visited and talked to her three birth children several times at the Bells’ home over the years.

She said she observed injuries to her now 16-year-old birth son and to Krystal, and made at least three reports to child-protective workers.

Ron Mullen, birth father of the boy shown being hit in the videos and another 17-year-old adopted by the Bells, told Watchdog that he and his fiancée also reported allegations of child abuse to state workers.

Abuse in Iowa's foster care system
Ron Mullen and Lisa Logue

But both birth parents say they believe their attempts to get Human Services to take action were ignored because their parental rights were terminated years ago for past drug abuse. Both said they have been clean for years.

Iowa Department of Human Services officials said they cannot comment on the ongoing child abuse investigation.

But they do say they are spending more time reviewing abuse allegations, including abuse reports that were rejected in the past, when new abuse claims involving the same children are made.

Video is helpful in determining what happened within a family, Human Services spokesperson Amy McCoy said.

But the Bell case raises questions about how well Iowa authorities are working to protect disabled children — and why the state allowed one couple to adopt so many vulnerable kids.

At least one-third of children in foster care nationally have physical or mental disabilities. And those children are far more likely than other children to be physically abused, sexually assaulted and neglected, experts say.

A 2015 U.S. Department of Justice report shows that the rate of violence experienced by children with disabilities is more than triple the rate for kids ages 12 to 15 and double the rate for kids aged 16 to 19 without disabilities.

Liz Cox, who heads Prevent Child Abuse Iowa, said one recent study at a pediatric hospital found 32 percent of children with disabilities there were victims of physical abuse and 68 percent were victims of sexual abuse.

“Some offenders specifically seek victims with disabilities because they are perceived to be more vulnerable and unable to report,” Cox said.

Red flags: Dozens of police calls

Why are children in foster care?

Makayla Bell, 24, said she was removed permanently from the Bell home at age 17 after she accused Joyce Bell of kicking her in the face repeatedly during an argument.

Joyce Bell was not charged in the incident.

Now a new mother living outside Bloomfield, Makayla Bell said her adoptive parents presented well when social workers and police responded to their home.

As a result, she, Krystal and others who reported abuse had a difficult time getting them to investigate deeper.

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