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

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The mother of the 8-year-old girl who died in Elk River pleaded for months to see her daughter and documented safety concerns with authorities, but was denied in part because of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to court records reviewed by 5 INVESTIGATES.

Autumn Hallow was found dead inside her family’s apartment on Aug. 13 leading to the arrest of her father and stepmother.

Brett Hallow, 30, and his wife, Sarah Hallow, 28, are charged with second-degree murder and first-degree manslaughter.

Police calls for service and family court records reviewed by 5 INVESTIGATES reveal a pattern of allegations of abuse and neglect dating back to at least 2017.

Kelsey Kruse, Autumn’s mother, split custody of her two children with their father, but family court records show they had been engaged in a contentious custody battle since 2013.

"Kelsey tried to move heaven and earth to protect Autumn," The Kruse family said in a statement to 5 INVESTIGATES. "The system that was designed to help, however, thwarted Kelsey’s efforts."

Attorneys representing the Hallows have not responded to requests for comment.

More from KSTP:

Charges filed against father, stepmother in death of 8-year-old Elk River girl

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

Police and court records reveal the fight over parenting time continued into 2020 when Kruse raised concerns that she had not seen her daughter since January. One police officer called to the Hallow’s Elk River home noted that the father was "unwilling to share child custody due to the COVID-19 pandemic."

Sarah Hallow also denied Kruse’s requests in March and April to see or at least speak to Autumn over the phone, according to text messages provided in court.

"Autumn is not being withheld from you, and she is not staying with us for ill-intent….Autumn is not here for malicious reasons," Hallow wrote in one message. "We are only following the law, doing what we are told to do for health purposes, and looking out for our families best interest during this unprecedented time."

For days, Kruse pushed back citing Governor Tim Walz’s 20-33 executive order, which makes an exemption for parenting time schedules, and reminded the Hallows of her request for calls or video chats.

"I am still waiting to talk to Autumn. I have been denied my parenting time and phone time," Kruse wrote on April 22, nearly a week before she asked the judge to intervene. "This is not healthy for her to not be able to have any contact with her mother. I am getting worried about her."

Kruse filed an affidavit in April asking that Sherburne County District Court Judge Mary Yunker enforce their custody agreement after months of not seeing or hearing from her daughter.

Yunker denied the motion because Kruse did not properly serve the Hallows, "failed to demonstrate that the current circumstances constitute an emergency" and stated that a hearing would be scheduled "when the COVID-19 pandemic orders permit."

Judge Yunker declined to comment citing the active court case.

Although the bulk of the evidence submitted concerns a lack of communication with the Hallows, Kruse also referenced previous allegations of abuse detailed in at least two Sherburne County Health and Human Services investigations from 2019.

Kruse stated the investigations were opened after her son returned from his father’s house covered in bruises, according to the affidavit filed on April 28.

Kruse acknowledged that both cases "were eventually closed due to a lack of evidence," but 5 INVESTIGATES found she made similar allegations in other custody records dating back several years.

Court records show that Kruse stopped sending her children to the Hallows because of safety concerns after her son came home with a bruised eye in late 2017.

"Both children says it happens all the time," Kruse wrote in her affidavit about the alleged abuse.

The Hallows denied the allegations in a handwritten note to the court, saying their son had tripped and fell after being tapped on the mouth for lying. They claimed they were cleared of any wrongdoing after Child Protective Services "told us there would not be an investigation" because it was "discipline with an accident."

A judge found the allegations unproven and dismissed the case, according to court records.

Elk River and Sherburne County officials declined to comment on any possible reports to CPS or child abuse investigations.

"Law enforcement, child protection, and the legal system all failed her, and now an innocent child is dead. Autumn deserves justice," Autumn’s family wrote in a statement. "She deserves accountability by the systems that failed to protect her. Her family prays for change, so that no other child suffers the same fate as Autumn Hallow."

5 INVESTIGATES found that Elk River police officers responded to the Hallow’s apartment more than 30 times in the last three years for noise complaints, welfare checks and suspected child abuse.

The last call, less than two weeks before Autumn was found dead, concerned more custody issues.

An officer responded by trying to call the Hallows on the phone on Aug. 2 but wrote that "no return call was received." It’s unclear whether any further investigation was conducted.

Eleven days later, police responded to a medical call and found stepmother Sarah Hallow performing chest compressions on the girl, according to the complaint.

Police say the girl appeared to have been deceased for some time and said she appeared to be "extremely frail and thin." The medical examiner’s report found that Autumn showed several signs of starvation.

Rich Gehrman, the executive director of a child protection nonprofit called Safe Passage Minnesota, believes signs of abuse are going unnoticed because of pandemic restrictions, like school closures.

Teachers, coaches and other mandated reporters have "fewer eyes" on children who may be experiencing abuse or neglect, according to Gehrman.

The Department of Human Services estimates a 40% average weekly reduction in the number of maltreatment reports made since schools were forced to close earlier this Spring.

"With COVID-19, a lot of these children are hidden in place," Gehrman said. "Many opportunities that would’ve been there to figure this out in time aren’t there at this point."

Brett and Sarah Hallow are scheduled to return to court at the end of August.