A Mother’s Plea: Death of 8-year-old exposes ‘system failure’ and need for change, advocates say

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A sapling in her front yard is now a point of reflection and healing for Kelsey Kruse.

"It’s actually called an Autumn Blaze maple," Kruse said about the tree planted in memory of her 8-year-old daughter, Autumn Hallow.

"I see it every day and it’s going to grow with us too. Just like she would have,” Kruse said.

Three months after her daughter’s death in Sherburne County, Kruse is speaking publicly with hopes of bringing about changes to protect other children.

In her first on-camera interview with 5 INVESTIGATES, Kruse described what she called a "failure of the system" prior to Autumn’s death. Despite her pleas for help to Elk River police and county child protection services, Kruse was unable to see her daughter in the six months before she died.

"I tried so hard to get people to listen to me about helping Autumn," Kruse said.

Police found Autumn’s body in the Elk River apartment of her father Brett Hallow and step-mother Sarah Hallow in August. Both are now charged with her murder.

Attorneys representing the Hallows have declined to comment.

Rich Gehrman, child welfare expert and executive director of the nonprofit Safe Passage for Children, says Autumn’s death is the latest tragedy to highlight what he calls a systemic failure.

"We need to almost always look at what went wrong with the system, not what went wrong with the individual worker and that seems to be the case here as well," Gehrman said. "I’m sure everyone involved is really thinking this over and saying, ‘What could I have done differently?’"

Calls for help

Kruse last saw her daughter in January, but she spent nearly every month since then asking questions and raising concerns about her daughter’s safety.

Despite a court-ordered 50-50 parenting time agreement, Kruse says Autumn’s father stopped sharing custody.

"I documented it. I called the police and made sure it was documented (that I) tried to get their help to communicate with (Autumn’s) dad and try and see what’s going on,” Kruse said.

As 5 INVESTIGATES first reported, Elk River police had been called to the Hallow’s apartment 31 times since 2018. At least half of those calls were made this year alone.

Records show dozens of police calls to home where 8-year-old girl died

Police records show Brett Hallow told police his decision to withhold Autumn from her mother was "due to the COVID-19 pandemic."

Kruse said she believes Brett Hallow used the pandemic as an excuse and continued to call 911.

"At first, they would come out to the apartment and meet me, try to make contact with (Brett), and then eventually, they would stop even coming there," Kruse said. "The more that I called, the less help that I got."

Neighbors also called police about the apartment where Autumn was staying. In May, one person reported hearing "a young female scream ‘Get off me!,’" according to an incident report.

Officers noted that the lights in the Hallows’ unit were turned off when they arrived in the parking lot and that no one came to the door when they knocked.

Police again failed to see Autumn up close during a welfare check in June. According to one police report, an officer said he was turned away when he asked to see the girl but noted that Brett Hallow "later had her wave to me from their balcony."

Kruse said police declined to intervene any further. Elk River police have declined to comment.

"Usually, their response was, ‘This is a civil matter. You have to go to court,’" Kruse said.

Court records: Mother pleaded for months to see daughter prior to death in Elk River

She tried to take Brett Hallow back to family court in April, but records show a judge declined to hear the case saying that Kruse failed to properly serve notice to Autumn’s father and that Kruse "failed to demonstrate that the current circumstances constitute an emergency."

"I didn’t know what I was doing," Kruse said. "I couldn’t afford a lawyer."

History with CPS

Kruse turned to Sherburne County Child Protection for help as her attempts to reach her daughter through police and the courts were unsuccessful.

In May, Kruse said she asked Child Protection workers to intervene after Brett Hallow blocked her from seeing Autumn on Mother’s Day.

"I said that Brett and Sarah aren’t answering the door for law enforcement and the intake worker kind of chuckled and said that if they won’t answer the door for police then they’re not going to answer the door for them. And she said she would look into it and I never heard back," Kruse said.

Sherburne County Health and Human Services has declined repeated interview requests, citing multiple active investigations.

"Whether or not reports of maltreatment had been received or parties had contacted this agency will be a part of these investigations," wrote Sherburne County spokesman David Unze in a statement to 5 INVESTIGATES.

But it wasn’t Kruse’s first contact with the county agency. In 2019, police records show the county opened child abuse investigations after Kruse reported her son came home from the Hallows with "suspicious injuries," but those cases were closed with no confirmed findings of abuse and no charges.

"If there are multiple reports on the brother before and they’re in the same household, then I think that’s reason at least for a worker to pick up the phone and say, ‘Hey, how are things going out there?’" Gehrman said. "Sometimes that’s all it takes."

Although it is unclear what steps the county took when Kruse asked for help to see her daughter, two retired child protections workers told 5 INVESTIGATES that without a specific allegation of neglect or abuse, the county’s hands may have been tied.

"It struck me that everybody did what they were supposed to and the child still died. So, that suggests to me that there’s a system problem here," Gehrman said.

"Whether it’s police or Sherburne County Child Protection, somebody needs to be held accountable," Kruse said. "Somebody needs to help us a little bit more."

Advocating for change

Kruse said she would like to see a new law in Autumn’s name, but child welfare experts say it is not yet clear what kind of legislation it would take to prevent a similar tragedy from happening to another child.

For now, Kruse had led a campaign among friends and followers to commit acts of kindness on Fridays in memory of Autumn.

"I feel like I’m still her mom, so I’m still taking care of her," Kruse said. "I’m still doing stuff for her every day because she’s my daughter. That’s what I need to do."

Brett and Sarah Hallow are due back in court in February 2021 as attorneys continue reviewing a mountain of forensic evidence in the case.