For a person given over to metaphor, Wilbern Road near Sweet Home makes a good stand-in for the life of Hannah Grace Dowdie: a short, dead-end roller coaster of pavement, pressed on both sides by dark and murky woods. The road is behind a locked gate now. A sign on the chain link advises people to call for more information.
It was here, 13 days before Christmas, that workers at nearby Granite Mountain Quarries saw smoke and then later found the bodies of Hannah and her father Michael Palmer in Palmer's burning GMC truck, which was buried to the hubs in a muddy ditch. Michael was in the truck's bed. Hannah, less than a month shy of her second birthday and only awarded to her father by the courts the day before after spending most of her life in foster care, was in the cab. Both were burned to the point they were unrecognizable. Beyond that, officials have not specified how they died.
Though two men have been arrested and the Pulaski County Sheriff's Office says everyone directly responsible for the murders has been charged, no one in law enforcement the Times spoke to would talk abut the details of the crime for the record.
For now, all that's guaranteed is that there are questions. Many of those are being asked by Hannah's former foster parents, Holly and Kevin Carr. The Carrs were well on their way to adopting the little girl they still call their daughter before, they say, a caseworker with the Arkansas Department of Human Services stepped in and helped make sure she was awarded to Palmer ? a man they claim was unable to care for the girl and who put her in a situation that got her killed. The benefit of terrible hindsight aside, DHS counters: Would anyone want to live in a world where children can be taken away solely because their parents are unprepared to care for them? And if you answer yes to that, another question: Who gets to decide the definition of unprepared?
Questions. Questions on top of questions. None of them easy.
The photos of Hannah Grace Dowdie on file at the Saline County Prosecuting Attorney's Office are striking: a moon-faced 3-month-old, staring serenely into the camera and wearing only a diaper, with the red bulls-eye of a cigarette burn on her arm.
By then, Hannah's name had already been on television more than once. Born to Kayla Dowdie at UAMS soon after midnight on Jan. 1, 2008, Hannah was touted in news reports as the first child born in Arkansas that year. The state got involved in her life soon after that.
Records on file with the Saline County Prosecutor's Office show that on April 3, 2008, social workers with the Division of Child and Family Services of DHS wrote that Kayla had schizo-affective disorder ? a mental problem that can lead to everything from mood swings to visual and auditory hallucinations ? but refused to take medicine to control it because she thought cigarettes would help her. How wrong she was became clear near dusk on April 25, 2008, when Kayla called the Saline County Sheriff's Office to report that an unknown person had come into her home on Honeysuckle Lane in the East End community and assaulted her daughter.
When deputies arrived, Kayla proceeded to tell them that an angry, unknown woman with brown hair had barged into the house and said “You stole my dog and I want it back!” before hitting Hannah in the back and shoulder. The woman, Kayla told them, then left in a red car.
When police ran the plate number Kayla provided, the license returned as belonging to a green Chevy Cavalier. Kayla soon changed her story, telling another deputy that she and her neighbor got in a fight and that the neighbor had burned her daughter with a cigarette. Kayla's story quickly fell apart. The incident report says she “made a spontaneous statement: ‘Officer Green, I did it. I burned her! I need help!' ” Later, Kayla Dowdie told deputies that she had gotten into an argument with her neighbor and wanted to get her in trouble with the police. She had planned to blame Hannah's burn on her rival.
After Hannah was released from the hospital, she was taken into custody by the state, and entered the foster care system soon after that. By August 2008, Kayla Dowdie had pled guilty to filing a false police report and second-degree battery, and was sentenced to six years probation. Part of what she agreed to in the plea was that she would have no contact with her daughter. Nearly a year later, on June 1, 2009, her parental rights to Hannah were stripped by the courts.
Attempts to contact Kayla Dowdie by phone and e-mail for this story were unsuccessful. Since Hannah was taken away from her in April 2008, she has had another daughter who has also been removed from her care. At the time of Hannah's death, she told reporters that she was pregnant again.
Because of the confidentiality afforded children in the custody of the state ? and because of a request by the Pulaski County Sheriff's Office that DHS withhold information about Hannah's death ? Hannah Dowdie slips down an informational rabbit hole for several months after she entered foster care. She reappears in the summer of 2008, when her name was mentioned to Holly and Kevin Carr of Malvern.
The Carrs ? who called the girl HannahGrace, spelling it all one word ? could be just about any middle class family cursed with the bad luck of a medical problem that keeps them from being able to have another son or daughter of their own. Worried that their one biological child would grow up alone, they decided to look into adoption through the state. Originally, they were only willing to consider adopting a child whose parents were completely out of the picture. With Hannah, however, they were offered an option they hadn't heard before; the legal-risk adoption.
The legal-risk adoption is a gamble, but a good one. The Carrs say they were told that while Kayla Dowdie and Hannah's father, Michael Palmer, still had rights to the girl, there was a good chance that those rights would be terminated or relinquished. For the time being, the Carrs would be foster parents, but when all was decided in court, they would more than likely be able to adopt the girl outright. They thought it over and decided to try it. They completed their training to be foster parents on July 22, 2008, and took Hannah into their home in August.
Kevin Carr said that bringing her home for the first time was a familiar feeling. “For us, it was like having a new baby,” Kevin Carr said, “like any parents that have a new baby. You're excited and scared. You don't know all the things that are going to be required. Just like any new parent, you just do it.”
From the start, it was clear that taking care of the girl would be demanding. She was frequently ill, sometimes requiring doctor visits two or three times a month. Though they were assured it was a problem she would eventually grow out of, Hannah had a “swallow problem” which meant that if her liquids weren't mixed with a thickening agent to the consistency of heavy syrup, she could choke and suck fluid into her lungs, risking pneumonia or even death. Though Hannah wasn't old enough to be formally tested for asthma, she had all the warning signs. She had to sleep with a humidifier going and the head of her bed had to be elevated. She eventually had to be put on an updraft machine that would mist medicine into her lungs up to six times a day.
Even with all those difficulties, the Carrs say that they were overjoyed to have Hannah in their lives, and thought of her as their own daughter. Their contact with DHS went fairly smoothly as well, and they fell into the routine of shuttling Hannah back and forth to her weekly, one-hour supervised visits with her biological parents. The Carrs say they had a good relationship with their original DHS caseworker. If they had questions or concerns, they would e-mail him and he would e-mail back promptly. Things seemed to be moving along toward the day when they could eventually adopt Hannah and truly make her their own.
They say that all changed, however on Jan. 30, 2009. That was the day their old caseworker resigned to take another job, and they were assigned a new caseworker. Though the charges against Kayla Dowdie made it look like the removal of her parental rights was a done deal, in their very first meeting with the new caseworker, the Carrs say they were told that things were going to go in a “different direction” with regard to Hannah's father, Michael Palmer. Specifically: seeking more visitation time for Palmer with his daughter. That day, says Holly Carr, when she extended her hand, the caseworker refused to shake it. That became a fitting symbol of how the Carrs say they were treated over the next few months.
“She had absolutely no contact with us,” Kevin Carr said. “If we did contact her, it was slow to get a response. I almost felt like she saw us as an adversary in this process, where we were really not trying to be an adversary.”
As the Carrs' caseworker became receptive to giving Palmer more time with his daughter, so did the court. From January to July, Hannah went from one-hour, once-a-week supervised visits at the DHS office, to two-hour supervised visits in Palmer's home, then to unsupervised overnight and weekend visits. During this time, the Carrs say, they were voicing concerns to DHS about Palmer's ability to take care of Hannah ? that when they packed a bag for her to send to his house, it often came back looking like it hadn't been opened; that medicines they sent sometimes looked as if they hadn't been used; that Hannah was often returned to them dirty, as if she hadn't been bathed. They say that Palmer was frequently unable to make it to Hannah's doctor's appointments, even after he was ordered by the court to attend. When he did come, they say, he was often accompanied by his mother. Their caseworker, the Carrs said, dismissed their misgivings.
“We had questions and [our caseworker] didn't seem concerned with them,” said Kevin Carr. “I felt it was important that he had a stable job and a stable home ? the ability to take care of needs.”
The Carrs say their day-and-night experience with DHS made them understand just how much dominion a caseworker holds over the fate of a child in the foster care system. “They have supervisors,” said Kevin Carr, “but whether they've been there a couple of months or 10 years, the caseworker is the one who testifies and the one that makes recommendations. ... The judge makes the decision. But in our case, whatever DHS told him, that's what he went with.”
At the same time they were voicing concerns about Palmer's ability to take care of a child, they say Palmer was having some himself. Once, when Hannah returned from a visit to Palmer's home, Holly Carr said Palmer spoke to her about his reservations. “He told me that his friends had even told him that they didn't know why he kept trying to get this kid,” Holly said. “He said he'd given some thought to that ? about just giving her up.”
For whatever reason, Michael Palmer did keep seeking the return of his daughter and the courts obliged. In slow motion, the Carrs saw their dreams of adopting Hannah slip away from them. On Nov. 12, 2009, the day Palmer was to begin a one-month trial period with his daughter, they said goodbye to her for what they knew would likely be the last time. When they went to drop Hannah off at the DHS office that morning, several of their friends and family came with them.
“That was the day that we felt like she was probably not coming back to our care,” Kevin Carr said. “Up until that day, we just felt like there was a chance.”
DHS has been asked by the sheriff's office not to discuss the details of Hannah's case and are bound by confidentiality laws, so the caseworkers and child advocates involved can't tell their side of the story. Julie Munsell is the spokesperson for DHS. She said that while she can't speak about Hannah Dowdie and Michael Palmer in particular, she could comment in general about the process that children, foster parents, and biological parents go through when dealing with the system.
Munsell said that in most cases, DHS' goal is to return a child to its birth parent, even if there are allegations of past abuse or neglect. “The law requires, if possible, to work towards a reunification with a parent or parents,” Munsell said. “That's federal law and it's also state law. The caveat to that is: If it is in the best interest of the child. ... We've seen cases where that was not possible, not in the best interest, and moved or recommended to the court that the child remain in foster care or go to a relative placement.”
Munsell said that the law recognizes the potential for families to overcome their problems, and requires the state and the courts to give opportunity and support to that goal. She said it's not uncommon for DHS to be required to pay for counseling or anger management courses, or to help parents find jobs. When the safety of the child is a concern, Munsell said, the state can step in and remove a parent's rights, but must give the process of reunification a chance if the other parent ever comes forward and asserts their rights to the child. That can be an excruciating process for families like the Carrs.
“Sometimes if a child stays in care longer than everyone would like,” Munsell said, “that's part of the reason: because a father has come forward in the middle of the process ... You can start to see how that can be a very frustrating process for an adoptive family, who did not know perhaps that one parent even existed. From there, they have to work through the process of watching reunification and watching, perhaps, their dreams of adopting that child go away.”
People are obviously polarized by when and if a child should be taken from his or her parents, Munsell said. While the urge to take a child from a parent at the slightest hint of neglect or abuse is common, the law sees it differently. “For those of us who are parents, the thought that anyone could take away our right to make decisions about our children is implausible, unimaginable,” she said. “There are people who believe that if you choose not to take care of your child then you give up that right. But that's not what the law says. It is what a lot of people feel, but it's not what the law says.”
In the cruelest of twists, Holly and Kevin Carr were walking out the door to go to a funeral when they got the phone call from the person who would eventually come to their home to tell them Hannah Dowdie was dead. DHS, they later learned, had contacted an acquaintance of theirs and asked the person to come tell the Carrs so they wouldn't have to hear it on the news.
In the month since Hannah had been removed from their home, Holly Carr had called Michael Palmer once to ask how Hannah was doing ? a call for which she said she was chastised by their DHS caseworker. “She told me that it was inappropriate,” Holly said, “and that I could not contact Michael any further ? that when [Hannah] was removed from our home, it was over with, plain and simple.”
While Palmer told the Carrs that Hannah was doing well, he didn't share details of problems in his personal life. An incident report on file with the Pulaski County Sheriff's Office says that on Nov. 22, 2009, Palmer was involved in what the police officer on the scene termed a domestic assault on his girlfriend at the Arch Street Pike Little Caesars Pizza, where she worked. Palmer's girlfriend told police that they had fought over a phone, and he had slapped her on the right cheek. Deputies didn't see any marks or bruises, and Palmer's girlfriend downplayed the incident, so the case wasn't pursued further. However, as the officer was about to leave, the manager of the pizza parlor told him that she'd just received a phone call from an unknown man whose voice she didn't recognize. The caller warned that if the woman involved in the altercation didn't stop seeing Palmer, he would do a “drive-by” on her at work. The woman told police that the caller might be one of three men, but refused to name them.
In a second incident report on file with the sheriff's office, deputies said that on Nov. 28, 2009, Palmer called to report that when he came outside his house to get in his truck, he found all four of his 20-inch tires slashed. He told deputies that for the past month, his ex-girlfriend ? the same woman involved in the incident at the pizza parlor ? had been threatening to “knife” his GMC pickup.
Soon after they learned of Hannah's death, the Carrs put up a picture of Hannah Grace Dowdie on their Facebook page, and began referring to her by name in their posts. Prior to that, in deference to privacy laws concerning foster children, they had only referred to her as “HG” while online. “That was when I said: this little girl, her name is HannahGrace,” Holly Carr said. Within 24 hours, a woman with DHS had called and asked them to take the picture down. When they wouldn't, they were served with a court order forcing them to take it down. Beyond that, and a Christmas card mistakenly sent to Hannah at their home by DHS, they say they've had no further contact with the agency.
Meanwhile, the investigation into the deaths of Hannah Dowdie and Michael Palmer is ongoing. On Jan. 21, the deputies arrested Robert Todd Gatrell and charged him with two counts of capital murder and one count of arson. Gatrell, a friend of Palmer's, lived on Shamburger Lane, close to where Palmer's truck was found burning. Four days later, police also arrested Robert Gatrell's 16-year-old cousin, Daniel Chase Gatrell, as an adult on the same charges. During the investigation, a well behind the home of Robert Gatrell's grandfather, Charles Gatrell (who was subsequently arrested for threatening an officer during the execution of the search warrant),. was dug into and a piece of evidence was recovered. The sheriff's office won't say exactly what it was.
Sheriff's office spokesman John Rehrauer has said that all those directly responsible for the murders have been arrested, but the case has not yet been formally handed over to the prosecutor. The affidavits filed to seek the arrests of Daniel and Robert Gatrell remain sealed, with prosecutors saying the disclosure of the information contained in them could harm their case.
Since Hannah's death, the Carrs say they have gotten most of their information about the murders from news reports. They note one news broadcast that showed an eviction notice taped to the door of Michael Palmer's home, and another in which Kayla Dowdie claimed to have seen her daughter the day before she died, providing the news station KLRT Fox 16 with a photograph of Hannah that she said was taken during that meeting. (Saline County Prosecutor Ken Casady said that if Dowdie did have contact with her daughter, that would constitute a violation of her parole. He said his office would look into it).
The Carrs say that their faith in God, their friends and their community have helped them get through the dark days. Michael Palmer's relatives asked that they not attend Hannah's funeral, so the Carrs had their own memorial service for her in Malvern on Dec. 17. The sanctuary of their church was so full that extra chairs had to be brought in for the service, and so many came to express their condolences that the Carrs stood in a receiving line for an hour.
“I've never seen that many people attend a memorial service,” Kevin Carr said. “For a community this size, close to 10,000 people, that's a lot of people that came and took time out of their day and night.”
In talking to Kevin and Holly Carr, one of the most amazing things you'll hear them say is that they'd still be willing to give adoption another try. They understand it's a long shot now that they're making their voices heard about their displeasure with DHS. But they also know that Hannah's sister is still in the system. When they had Hannah, they dreamed that the two girls might be reunited in their home someday ? had gone so far as to buy Hannah a bed so the crib would be free on the off-chance it might happen. They won't, however, consider another legal-risk adoption.
Their hearts are clearly broken, but, they say, they aren't out for revenge. So much could have been different, they said, if only their caseworker had listened to their concerns. “If any good comes out of this,” Kevin Carr said, “it's that they do re-examine their goals and make sure that they are in line with what's best for the kids. ... Their mission is to reunite the child with the biological parent. That's a fine and dandy goal, but I think you really have to open that up. Let's find what's really the best placement for that child.”
Kevin and Holly Carr don't go into Hannah's bedroom much anymore. She has left that place ? most of her clothes and toys sent with her when she went away ? but she is still there for them. Kevin Carr looks simultaneously very big and very small when he stands in the middle of Hannah's room and stares at the bed where his daughter slept. He and his wife now know, he said, what it is to lose a child twice.
“My best dreams would have been at some point knowing that she had a good life and she was able to prosper and do well,” Kevin said. “Then I would have known that in the short time she was with us, we probably provided her with some love and stability that helped her along the way. ... All the dreams and hopes we had for her ? they're gone.”