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How Erica could disappear and no one notice

By Michael Gordon, Cleve R. Wootson Jr. and Lindsay Ruebens
mgordon@charlotteobserver.com

SALISBURY In recent days – and perhaps for the first time in her life – someone outside her family is paying attention to Erica Parsons.

In 2011, her adoptive parents claim she went to live with her grandmother. Nobody has heard from her since.

Relatives who found Erica’s absence odd never bothered to alert authorities.

No favorite teacher intervened because Erica was home-schooled.

No Facebook friend grew suspicious because Erica, at times reclusive, didn’t have an account.

None of the government agencies that could have acted in the child’s behalf appears to have broken any rules. Erica shows up as a name on an adoption decree. She turns up again on a long-ago child-abuse complaint that closed with no charges being filed.

In a widely distributed photograph from 2010, Erica stands before a family Christmas tree, her expression blank.

But now, six months shy of what would be her 16th birthday, Erica has become the subject of a widening hunt by Rowan County, the state and the FBI. Her story has dominated TV news and is about to debut on a nationwide talk show.

Foul play is suspected. No charges have been filed.

Investigators say the child’s adoptive parents, Casey and Sandy Parsons, aren’t cooperating.

They have been called to court to face an allegation that a juvenile in their care has been abused or neglected. It’s unclear whether that charge involves Erica, whom the Parsons say they dropped off in Asheville around Christmas 2011 to live with her biological grandmother, Irene Goodman.

But according to search warrants in the case, the Parsons weren’t able to provide contact information for Goodman. An Observer search of public records found no Irene Goodman within 50 miles of Asheville.

Erica’s biological mother says on her Facebook page that Erica “has no family in Asheville.”

Casey and Sandy Parsons’ attorney, Carlyle Sherrill of Salisbury, said Saturday that the couple’s court date on the abuse allegation has not been set. He said their other minor-aged children have been placed with Casey’s mother.

Meanwhile the swirl surrounding Erica’s disappearance continues to grow. For much of her life, the child’s world appears to have been a narrow and private one. Small for her age and quiet, she was born to a mother who couldn’t support her and a father with a long criminal record.

By age 2, she had been adopted into another side of her fractured family. A short time later she went to live with another relative after Casey, her new mom, told family members she “couldn’t stand to look” at the child, according to search warrants in the case.

After eight months Erica was taken back by Casey and Sandy Parsons only because they were afraid of losing the state check they received each month for Erica, the warrants say. Those payments – which would be at least $634 a month for a child Erica’s age – are reserved for adoptive parents of special needs children.

The parents kept collecting the check, even after their daughter no longer lived with them, because they expected Erica to come home “at anytime,” their lawyer says. In doing so, investigators say, the Parsons may have committed a crime.

Once Erica was reported missing, her relatives stepped forward to describe the Parsons’ household as violent and abusive. They say the child often displayed bruises and lumps that Casey blamed on Erica’s siblings, warrants say. Family members have since told investigators that Casey beat her daughter regularly.

Late last month, perhaps due to a family dispute, Erica’s stepbrother James filed a missing person’s report.

During a search of the home Wednesday, investigators took pieces of wall and flooring they believe could contain blood stains and collected two knives wrapped in shrink wrap.

They also seized books and magazines about JonBenet Ramsey, a child beauty queen found murdered in her Colorado home in 1996.

This week, much of the country will have the chance to catch up with Erica’s case.

The syndicated TV show “Dr. Phil” will spend its Tuesday and Wednesday episodes on her disappearance.

The title: “Missing or Murdered: Where Is 15-Year-Old Erica?”

According to the advance publicity, Dr. Phil will be interviewing her adoptive parents.

All in the family

Erica was born Feb. 24, 1998, “a happy baby,” says Crystal Owensby, who was being raised by Erica’s biological mother, Carolyn Parsons.

Owensby, 25, says Carolyn didn’t have the money to keep Erica, but was never at peace about giving her up. Now, with Erica missing, she’s heartbroken about the decision.

“It bothered her every day,” Owensby said. “She feels maybe if she had kept her, this would’ve never happened. She blames herself.”

On her Facebook page, Carolyn Parsons wrote: “I nor her dad have no clue where she is and we love her and want to find her and know she is safe.”

Carolyn Parsons did not return Observer phone calls for comment. She had been married to Sandy Parsons’ brother, and records show that Casey and Sandy took custody of Erica a few months shy of her second birthday.

Mecklenburg County Superior Court Judge Lisa Bell says adoption placements within the same family normally take less time and often are seen as being in the best interests of the child.

Cabarrus County approved Erica’s adoption on March 23, 2000, finding that Casey and Sandy Parsons were “fit to have the care and custody of said child.”

That designation took place despite Sandy’s two convictions in the 1990s for assaulting Casey. According to court records, the second incident took place in 1997, two years before the couple took custody of Erica.

A spokeswoman for Cabarrus County Department of Social Services said officials cannot discuss the specifics of Erica’s case because adoption records are legally sealed.

But in response to a list of submitted questions, Cheryl Harris, the county’s administrator for child welfare, said domestic violence cases involving parents who want to adopt are thoroughly investigated.

“The analysis is centered on an evaluation of the future risk to the child,” Harris said.

In such households, no follow-up visits to check on the child’s safety occur unless ordered by the court, she said.

Nor do her caseworkers check to see how special-needs money paid to families each month is spent. The state and federal rules operating the program don’t require such oversight, Harris said, once a family qualifies for the aid.

Home-school

Erica never attended the Rowan-Salisbury Public Schools, a school district official says.

Instead, she was taught at the Parsons Christian School, a home-school started by Casey Parsons in 2005 when Erica was 7, according to state records.

The state doesn’t do background checks on home-school administrators, and Casey never filed reports on the progress of her students, known only in state records as “three females and one male.”

Chris Mears, a spokesman for the state Department of Non-Public Education, said Casey Parsons never met with state officials during regional home-school visits, nor did she ever update her school information, which home-schools are urged – but not required – to do each year.

Casey Parsons also did not file the scores on the annual achievement test the students were required to take.

In fact, Mears said, the state has no way of knowing whether the Parsons Christian School still exists.

‘In the corner’

Erica grew up in a household where violence was apparently common.

James Parsons, the stepbrother who first reported her disappearance in late July, has been accused of assaulting his mother, siblings, even one of the family’s dogs.

Family members have told investigators that Erica was often in trouble with her parents.

“Every time I saw that girl she was on some type of punishment,” said one relative, who asked not to be named because authorities had told him not to talk with the media.

The last time the two ran into each other, “She said she couldn’t talk to me. She had to sit in the corner.”

Sherrill, the parents’ attorney, said his clients have been reported for child-abuse before.

“They’ve had the children strip-searched because there were allegations of bruises, and those allegations were totally false,” he said.

In 2002, when Erica was 4, her parents signed an agreement with a Michigan couple for Casey to carry their unborn son. Court records don’t indicate if the Parsons were paid.

Around that same time, someone in Erica’s family called Rowan County, claiming that the child was being abused.

Erica, according to a report by WSOC-TV, displayed marks on her rear and legs, and several on her face.

A caseworker from the county’s Department of Social Services visited the home. No charges were filed. The caseworker said there were no signs of cuts or bruises and Erica showed no fear of her parents, “going up and sitting on each of their laps without being asked,” according to documents cited in the station’s report.

Officials with the Rowan County DSS said they could not comment on Erica’s case.

Charlotte attorney Valerie Pearce, a child-welfare specialist, said what’s described in the report is known as a “family assessment.”

The goal, Pearce said, is not necessarily to thoroughly investigate a child-abuse complaint, but to “sit down with the entire family and say, ‘What can we do to help? What do y’all need to be a better family?’ ”

The motivation behind such visits: Keep children in the home unless there are clear signs of abuse, Pearce said.

Child advocates say that the new “nonadversarial” approach, which Pearce DSS adopted statewide about a year before the 2002 visit to the Parsons’ home, carries significant risks.

“Some of the older social workers really don’t like it because they know the kids aren’t going to talk with mom and dad sitting there,” Pearce said.

“A lot of child advocates don’t like it either. A lot of child fatalities are occurring in this state because someone didn’t pick up on something.”

Erica and Zahra

A little more than a year before her parents say Erica went to live with her grandmother, Zahra Baker’s family in Hickory reported that she had disappeared.

Both girls were small for their age. Both were home-schooled. Both were raised by adoptive or stepmothers who were described as abusive and neglectful – after their daughters disappeared.

After a month-long search that drew worldwide coverage, police found Zahra’s dismembered remains. Elisa Baker, Zahra’s stepmother, pleaded guilty to her death.

Aleia Burwell, the victim’s services coordinator for the Hickory Police Department, was sent to the Baker home to support Zahra’s father and stepmother after the girl was reported missing.

She said the case taught her that people who suspect abuse have to speak up.

“It’s really unfortunate,” Burwell said of Erica’s disappearance. “We all hope for the best. We hope the Zahra Baker case is one of those that’s one in a million and won’t happen again.

“... That’s why it is so important to report these things, because a lot of time these children don’t have a voice.”

Bell said the focus in cases such as these should not be solely on any rips in the government safety net but on the failure of the families to act.

“Most of the time when a child disappears for two days, much less two years, the people most likely to raise an alarm are the family,” said the judge, herself an adoptive mother.

In the past five to 10 years, Pearce says she’s seen a surge of parents who have come back to court to turn in their adopted children. “Like it’s Walmart,” she said. “It just drives me crazy.”

Bell, the Mecklenburg judge, has watched similar situations from her seat on the bench.

In the end, she said, maybe one of the child-protective system’s biggest weaknesses is what at times is an unwarranted expectation for parents to act like parents, and families like families.

Staff Writer Lukas Johnson and Staff Researcher Maria David contributed.

Gordon: 704-358-5095
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