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The Short Sad Life of Carson Swyres

Born to a second-generation drug addict in a state that does little to regulate painkillers, Lacey Kertz's son hardly had a chance

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Throughout the first few months of Carson's life, Kertz claims that she did not abuse pills, only using her prescribed medication. But Helms tells a different story. A pediatrician allegedly told Kertz she would not provide her with pain medication. "Then she started throwing a fit because they wouldn't let her nurse Carson," Helms says. The doctor said Kertz needed 72 hours without drug use before breastfeeding.

One time, Helms says, Kertz crawled through her bedroom window and took a bottle of painkillers. "She didn't think she was addicted," Helms says. "Most of them don't."

For about a year in 2013, Kertz lived with Clayton's great-grandmother, Judith Stadler, who with her husband owns an expansive plot of land in St. Francois County — three houses, a lake, and about a dozen dogs and cats. Their property is nestled in a wooded, unincorporated community called French Village. Roughly Road, a gravel path nicknamed "Druggly" by locals, winds through the trees.

Kertz and her boys lived with Stadler and her husband in a trailer atop a hill. She moved in to get back on her feet after another car accident left her without a vehicle. "We brought Lacey in because she was the mother of my grandchild, and we knew she was a mess," recalls Stadler's grown daughter, Sheryl Sullivan, who lived in a two-story home at the bottom of the hill. "She couldn't stay in a place for more than two months."

Carson spent most of his life on the Stadler property. He won the nickname "Chubbies," for his adorable cheeks, and developed an affinity for SpongeBob, who he dubbed Bob Bob. His first birthday had a SpongeBob theme. Around that time, Carson walked his first steps and grew out his blonde hair, which furled off the back of his head like a little mullet.

While living on the Stadlers' estate, Kertz became embroiled in a tense custody battle with the couple's son over Clayton. Travis DeNoyer and his wife Amanda had been hosting Clayton every other weekend, but one day, they failed to return him to Kertz. In the months to come, the legal battle for Clayton would consume Kertz.

Sullivan says that DeNoyer might have decided to fight for custody because Kertz's drug use seemed to be worsening. A number of doctors stopped seeing Kertz after discovering her drug use, Sullivan alleges. She also recalls Kertz staying up all night and sleeping through the day.

Another family member, who prefers not to be named, says that Kertz once nearly overdosed on Trazodone. The family called an ambulance, but Kertz waved it away.

"She loved her kids, but not more than her high," Sullivan says. "The girl did anything for drugs."

Kertz tells a different story. She claims that Stadler and Sullivan became her primary drug providers, selling her pain pills in exchange for money and sometimes food stamps. She claims she tried morphine for the first time after Sullivan ran out of Percocets. (Sullivan strongly denies providing Kertz drugs. Stadler could not be reached for comment.) Kertz also claims that her pill use during this time was "minimal." As for the Trazodone incident? "I was just tired."

"I don't blame anyone for what happened, because that was my baby. But that family caused me to go into deep depression," Kertz says. "They made my life a living hell."

Lori Ross co-chairs the Missouri Task Force on Children's Justice, established in 1991 to improve the investigation of child abuse and neglect in Missouri. She has served twice as co-chair, a two-year appointment.

Similar groups exist in most states and are funded through a provision of the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, signed by George H.W. Bush. In 2013, the year Carson died, Missouri recorded 68 cases of fatal child abuse or neglect.

The multi-disciplinary task force comprises judges, police officers, child advocates and mental health professionals. Ross, a foster mother to more than 400 children and president of the Midwest Foster Care and Adoption Association, serves as a parent group representative. The body meets four times a year to review two or three "critical event reports," cases in which a child dies or nearly dies.

During Carson's 22 months of life, investigators from Children's Division visited Kertz four times to follow up on accusations of abuse or neglect. The task force did not see Kertz's file (typically they'll only delve deeply into a small number of cases each year). The RFT obtained a copy from the Department of Health and Senior Services and provided it to Ross for an independent review.

The Children's Division abuse hotline fielded its first call raising concerns about Kertz in May 2012, sixteen months before Carson's death, when she lived in a Festus apartment with both children. The caller described a cluttered living environment, punctuated by the stench of rabbit and cat droppings. The caller alleged Kertz totaled her car, used pills and "will sleep all day and be up all night."

Investigator Leslie Heusted arrived the next day. Kertz denied drug use and drinking, only admitting to smoking marijuana "prior to her children." The worker's notes describe a house in disorder. Heusted told Kertz she would return the next day to reassess her living conditions.

Hours later, Kertz's house was spotless. She was "very excited to show me how clean it was now," Heusted reported. All other claims of abuse or neglect were labeled unsubstantiated, and Children's Division did not open a case.

Reviewing Heusted's notes, Ross notes that Kertz's messy home could imply an "internal level of dysfunction," and should have drawn more attention. "I would have felt more comfortable if they held the case open and did some random drop-ins," she explains. "Is mom actually keeping the house clean? Has she done anything to address these issues? Because what we sometimes find in these types of cases is a pattern of chronic neglect."

The second call, made by Amanda DeNoyer, came amid the tense custody battle between Kertz and DeNoyer's husband Travis in September 2012. Amanda told a hotline worker that Kertz abused drugs, attempted suicide, drove under the influence and left drugs out in the open, accessible to her children.

When investigator Kathryn Hamel got in touch with Kertz the next day, she denied DeNoyer's claims, noting that she and the DeNoyers were involved in a "big family feud." At the time, Clayton lived with his father, and Kertz wanted her son back.

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