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Sunday, December 14, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Nobody's Child

Seattle Times Staff Reporters

LaDawn Jump was known to leave her baby all alone. Her sister knew it. Her neighbors knew it. Her stepmother knew it. Police knew it. The state knew it. But nobody put a stop to it.

Damon Ryan Jump isn't fine, and may never be. Malnutrition and neglect may have caused permanent damage to his brain and skeletal system.

But he is getting better.

For the first time in his short life, he is bathed in attention, safe in a foster home. He eats six times a day and has gained weight - although his 18 pounds lags far behind normal for a child his age. He pulls himself up to stand against the furniture - although he still doesn't walk. He sleeps most of the night, no longer rocking on the floor to soothe himself.

This could have been his obituary.

That Damon lives is little credit to relatives who were supposed to love him, or to a state charged to watch over him when family and friends failed.

For 14 months, and even before he was born, Damon's life was marked by a trail of warning signs that went unheeded.

It was the serendipity of a fire that brought police to an Auburn apartment Nov. 13, where they found him filthy and sick, a broken doll discarded on the floor. But for a flicker of his eyes - almost missed by the officer - Damon might have died there.

He did not cry then, not once.

Police say he had been alone almost a month, left by a troubled young mother who made only occasional visits to bring him cheese and peanut-butter sandwiches. His only company was a country music radio station, cranked loud to mask his cries. His thumb was sucked raw and he had been chewing the carpet.

LaDawn Jump, 21, is in Regional Justice Center in Kent, awaiting trial. Charges against her were upgraded to first-degree child abandonment last week after doctors reported the severity of damage to Damon. She faces up to 10 years in prison.

Interviews and court documents reveal that Damon was born into the pattern of chronic neglect: Joe Jump was an absent father who spent much of his son's life in jail for drinking and driving; LaDawn Jump was a too-young mother grasping for a better life, dropping important things along the way - bills, pet dogs, a husband and, finally, a baby.

They show relatives and friends who baby-sat and complained and criticized, but did little more.

And they show a child-protective system that lost track of the family and let the baby vanish.

Authorities account officially for three calls reporting neglect, although neighbors and relatives insist they made many more. Caseworkers regarded the baby's risk as low, and farmed out the case to a public health nurse. By last spring, the case was closed. There was no further contact with the family until last month, when Damon was found alone in a burning building.

But what is remarkable about Damon Jump's life is what isn't known. From the time he was born with a damaged heart, to the day he was found silent and blinking on an apartment floor, he was nobody's child. His paternal grandparents didn't even know he existed for the first eight months of his life.

A ROUGH START FOR DAMON

It was a sunny September day east of the mountains, close to 90 degrees, when LaDawn Jump felt the first pangs of labor. Then barely 20, she hadn't shown this pregnancy much, and hadn't told too many people about it.

Leaving grandma in charge of 18-month-old daughter Ariel, Jump drove herself from the trailer she rented in East Wenatchee to Central Washington Hospital.

She shouldn't have been driving - her license had been suspended. But that was the least of Jump's worries that day. She had no job, and was juggling welfare and food stamps to survive. Her husband had just started a six-month stay in Chelan County Jail in Wenatchee.

And relatives said she wasn't thrilled about having a second baby.

LaDawn Jump wears her brown hair straight now, with short-cropped bangs. She is wide-eyed and soft-spoken, and seems almost wistful. And as she sits behind the plate-glass of the jail visitor's booth, she speaks of how she loves her children and will "go through anything to get them back."

Her son, Damon Ryan, came into the world Sept. 10, 1996, at 6 pounds, 10 ounces. Kelly Griffith, LaDawn's stepmother, was in the delivery room for the birth.

"He looked wonderful until they cut the umbilical cord," said Griffith, who lived nearby in the small town of Cashmere in Chelan County. "And then he turned a dark, deep blue."

The dramatic color change was the sign of a diseased heart, and nurses scurried to ready Damon for an emergency flight to Seattle. LaDawn Jump burst into tears at the news.

Looking back, friends now say it is one of the few times they saw her cry about her son.

"She first just held on to me and cried and cried," said Griffith. "Later she got distant and kind of detached. I don't know if she really knew what was going on."

A photograph taken that day shows a distraught young mother. "She was crying really, really hard," said LaDawn's sister, Carla McElroy. "I don't know what to think about it now. It's like she was crying for her baby before, but then she just leaves him."

Griffith said she drove LaDawn to Seattle that night; two days later, Damon underwent open-heart surgery at Children's Orthopedic Hospital and Regional Medical Center.

Officials at Children's declined to elaborate on Damon Jump's case, citing the child's privacy. He was born with transposition of the great vessels, a major and relatively rare birth defect. Dr. James French, the cardiologist who worked with Damon, said the defect occurs most often in boys who are otherwise healthy.

If the surgery is successful - and it apparently was for Damon - the tiny patients recover to live normal lives.

Baby Damon never got that chance.

He spent his first five weeks in the hospital and all but alone. It is a time when most infants are held a lot, begin to make eye contact and smile at their parents.

But Damon never saw his father during that time. News of the baby's birth came to Joe Jump at Chelan County Jail. The same day his son was born, Joe Jump pleaded guilty to driving drunk with a suspended license - and with Ariel in the car. When he got out of jail, Damon was already 5 months old.

Friends and relatives say LaDawn Jump rarely visited Damon in the hospital, finding excuses for why she couldn't go: She couldn't find a ride; she had business in Cashmere; she had to look after Ariel.

Hospital workers told LaDawn she wasn't spending enough time with her son, that she should be "hugging and holding the baby," Joe Jump, 25, said in a recent interview from the Auburn jail, where he has been since October on traffic charges.

Damon left Children's on Oct. 18, 1996, with a mended heart and a gift from the medical staff - a stuffed animal that became one of his favorite toys.

The hospital staff also made what is the first recorded call to state Child Protective Services (CPS), suggesting that the Jump family might need help after the baby went home.

The call was considered routine, and CPS won't say what, if any, contact it had with the Jumps at that time.

And LaDawn Jump already was making new plans for her growing family. While Damon was in the hospital, she signed a lease for an apartment in Cashmere, a corner unit above her sister, Carla McElroy. The two were close, some say best friends. Their union was forged as children in a home ravaged by drug addiction, sexual abuse at the hands of their mother's boyfriends, and constant moving.

LaDawn, especially, seemed to crave security and tried to surround herself with nice things. She was a meticulous housekeeper, used her welfare checks to buy Bud Lite, rented new furniture and a stereo, and had a credit card from Nordstrom.

"She was like a kid, just grabbing at everything that she could grab onto," said her father-in-law, David Jump. "But if you keep doing that, it ends up that you can only hold on to so much at once."

When she moved out of the trailer in East Wenatchee, neighbors said, she walked away from her three dogs, leaving them outside. The Cashmere apartment didn't allow dogs.

"No bowl of food. No water," recalled orchardist Jeff Mundy, the landlord at the trailer. "After a while we turned the water on in the orchards, or they would have had nothing.

". . . We thought that was bad, until we heard about this."

NEIGHBOR SOUNDS AN ALARM

The two-bedroom apartment in Cashmere cost $500 a month, part of a warehouse-shaped complex across from a canvas factory. LaDawn collected $642 a month in welfare, and an additional $200 in food stamps. She didn't have enough money to pay off a batch of traffic fines for driving with a suspended license.

There was no yard or outdoor play space at the complex. Neighbors said LaDawn sometimes brought a tiny ripped swimming pool outside the stairway by the parking lot, set it on the asphalt and watched her daughter Ariel play.

The baby boy was left inside.

On Damon's first Christmas, LaDawn took him and Ariel to her mother's home in Auburn.

And months later, around Mother's Day, Joe Jump's mother received a card that included a Christmas photograph of baby Damon. It was the first she knew that she had a grandson.

"It tears my heart out," Sharon Jump said.

Carla McElroy said her sister often left Damon and Ariel alone in the Cashmere apartment. Once, she said, LaDawn called her from a bar asking her to check on the kids. When McElroy went to the apartment, she found the door locked.

Melissa Hale, a neighbor and friend, said she became disturbed about how LaDawn seemed to ignore her children, especially Damon.

Last Valentine's Day, Hale filed a report with the Chelan County Sheriff: She said LaDawn had driven west of the Cascades to visit her mother, and left the children locked in the apartment.

Deputies were ready to break down the door of the apartment when Carla McElroy and her boyfriend showed up to say they were watching the kids. McElroy said she had left the apartment to smoke a cigarette. The couple wouldn't let officers inside the apartment; lacking evidence of abandonment, the police left without pressing charges of criminal neglect.

However, sheriff's deputies did contact Child Protective Services in Wenatchee about the incident.

Two days later, when police made a follow-up call about the children, they arrested LaDawn on her outstanding traffic warrant and booked her into jail, leaving the children in McElroy's care.

Carla McElroy said an angry LaDawn called her from jail and threatened to press charges against her for leaving Damon alone. McElroy said she challenged her sister: "I left your kids for three minutes. You leave your kids alone all day. I can't do this anymore."

The next day, Joe Jump was released from jail and came home to be a temporary dad to his two children.

STATE TAGS CASE "LOW RISK"

Even after Child Protective Services opened a case on the Jump family, it was assigned a low-priority. Agency officials said they had no reason to open a file earlier, even though Joe Jump said the state had been called before Damon's birth, when LaDawn left Ariel alone. Nor was the agency aware that LaDawn Jump had abandoned the family dogs, officials said.

The state spends more than $200 million a year to protect abandoned and abused children, including new funding last year to hire additional caseworkers. But while the national standard calls for no more than 17 open cases per social worker, Washington's average caseload still stands at 32.

Last year alone, the agency received 75,925 referrals. The Jump case landed in the middle ground: It wasn't among the 44 percent screened out with no action, nor was it in the 44 percent given a high priority.

Rather, it was accepted as a case but assigned a "low-risk tag."

CPS guidelines call for a low-priority risk tag on isolated complaints of neglect, such as leaving a 5-year-old in the yard all day under the charge of an 8-year-old, or allowing a small child to wander near streets. The agency is supposed to place a high priority on patterns of serious neglect, cases where a child shows physical injuries, and other situations that pose "imminent dangers" to health and safety.

In the Jump case, state officials said there is no record of calls from friends or relatives to trigger a higher rating.

"If there was some sort of allegation of abuse or neglect, absolutely we would have recorded it," said Roy Harrington, regional administrator for the Children and Family Services arm of the state Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS), based in Spokane.

But Melissa Hale said she called police a half-dozen times during the time the Jumps lived in Cashmere. And Griffith, LaDawn's stepmother, said she called CPS twice.

Chelan County sheriff's records show that Hale called in late March to report that LaDawn Jump had stolen her VCR. She said she had seen LaDawn leave the apartment with Ariel, and carrying a baby car seat with a blanket draped over it.

When deputies came to the apartment, they found Damon, now 6 months old, alone. LaDawn returned a half-hour later with bags of groceries, explaining that she had left him briefly to go to the store.

Police were told that LaDawn had taken the VCR to a pawn shop, concealed in the baby's car seat. She was jailed overnight for child abandonment, possession of stolen property and driving with a suspended license. Deputies called CPS workers, who took temporary custody of of both children. Joe Jump was at work when the children were taken.

Prosecutors didn't think they had enough evidence to prove abandonment and bargained the charges against LaDawn down to stolen property; a deferred prosecution on that charge is still pending.

"CPS briefly took custody of the children when they were in Chelan County, and we reunited the family," DSHS spokeswoman Kathy Spears said, declining further comment because of privacy law.

It was at that point that CPS, following standard procedures in low-risk cases, referred the Jump file to the Chelan-Douglas Health District, according to district administrator Tony Sims. A veteran public-health nurse was assigned to work with the family.

"We did provide services, and we did it at length," Sims said. "She refused services a few times, and she accepted services a few times."

Harrington, the CPS administrator, said the nurse checked on the Jumps every three weeks or so and reported the baby seemed to be fine. But the extent of the services provided remains unknown because of privacy laws.

Sometime around May, LaDawn Jump's stepmother called CPS. Kelly Griffith said she made one call after her 13-year-old daughter, Starla, found the apartment locked with the baby inside. The girl tried to break through a window screen, but said she was stopped by Carla McElroy's boyfriend. She waited outside for two hours until LaDawn returned home, then told her mother.

That same month, Griffith said, Joe and LaDawn locked Damon and Ariel in the apartment while they went for a drive in the Chevy Blazer they had just bought from LaDawn's father. They crashed the uninsured Blazer into a tree, but walked away uninjured.

May also was the last known time Damon Jump had a medical check, as a follow-up to his heart surgery. He was scheduled to be brought in again six months later - but by then he lay deserted in the Auburn apartment.

Police show one more report of child abandonment on June 5, based on an anonymous call.

"It could have been anybody," said Griffith. "It's a small community. A lot of people at that point knew what was going on."

When deputies arrived, an unnamed neighbor said she was watching the two children; no charges were brought against LaDawn. CPS was not contacted about the incident, apparently because deputies did not know about previous calls involving the Jumps. Sheriff's inspector Mike Harum said the department is trying to improve its computer and data base systems to make it easier to tie together cases.

In repeated interviews last week, child-protection officials gave confusing and contradictory accounts of their work with the Jump family.

Harrington, the regional administrator, said there were no complaints to CPS from friends or relatives of the Jumps. He said the case on the family was reviewed in April and ultimately was closed when no referrals were made in the following six weeks.

"They did a review and determined that the family was getting adequate services, and they closed the case," Spears said.

But Griffith said she did make a complaint during that time, to CPS supervisor Tim Abbey in Wenatchee.

Abbey acknowledged receiving complaints, but said a confidentiality agreement prevented him from identifying the caller.

"I would love to tell you more about this, but a person wanted to be confidential," Abbey said. Asked about Griffith's statement, he said: "I have no reason to disbelieve what she might have to say."

And Sims, the health district administrator, said services were stopped because officials lost track of the Jumps after they moved out of the area. A nurse who went to the apartment in July found that the family was gone.

If Damon Jump had died, state child protection officials would have to account more specifically for the agency's action, or inaction. In fatal cases, a new state law says that CPS is authorized, and may be compelled, to release details about what it did to keep that child safe.

A BRIEF HAPPY TIME

The Jump family moved to Western Washington, to the Auburn apartment, last summer. Joe Jump was out of jail. The family wanted a fresh start - an escape from warrants and creditors and bad memories.

Joe Jump said it went well for a time. He found enough work to buy some fun, as long as the creditors didn't catch them. The family went camping, watched the fireworks display at Gasworks Park.

And Damon was a happy baby, he said. He would pound himself on the head with a little red hammmer. He wore Nike shoes and baby Levis. Joe Jump bought his son a baseball and football.

"He'd say `da, da, da, da,' " Jump recalled. "He liked to scream at the top of his lungs. Sometimes his screaming never stopped. It was a happy high-pitched scream."

Joe Jump is pale from so much jail time, and muscular. Late in LaDawn's first pregnancy, he pleaded guilty to domestic violence. And he twice failed to take anger-management classes ordered by the court.

But friends say he is responsible when he stays sober. He speaks softly when he recounts what little he knows of his children. And he speaks of his fears for them in a voice as flat and nondescript as the cell walls around him.

Despite that wink of good times last summer, Joe Jump said it was clear Damon lagged far behind his older sister in development; he didn't crawl until he was a year old, and at 14 months still didn't hold a spoon.

And Joe said LaDawn favored Ariel, a pretty little girl she could dress up, over Damon.

"I think she left him in the crib most of the day when I was at work," he said. "But I didn't think she'd do anything to harm them or hurt them."

LaDawn spent two days in jail in August for unpaid traffic fines. About the same time, Joe had probation revoked when he failed to complete alcohol and drug treatment. But because authorities had not yet located the family, Joe eluded jail for awhile longer and the family stayed together.

Joe Jump said they celebrated Damon's first birthday, Sept. 10, with a small party.

And on Oct. 12, they invited friends to the apartment for a turkey dinner.

It would be the last time Joe Jump saw his children. Police picked him up the next day after he tried to flee from a traffic stop. He was sentenced to six months in the Auburn jail as a habitual traffic offender.

Not long after, LaDawn called Joe in jail, asking for a divorce. She told him she had met someone else, someone who gave her a chance for a better life.

LaDawn's new boyfriend asked not to be named to protect his privacy and that of his two children, who live with him. LaDawn moved into his apartment with Ariel. She tended the kids, and cooked them Tater Tot casseroles.

In the month they were together, the boyfriend said, he never saw Damon. When he asked about the boy, he said, LaDawn grew vague, saying her mother had him.

After her arrest last month, LaDawn told police that the boyfriend did not have room for Damon and she was afraid she would scare him away if it got too crowded. But her boyfriend said he would have been happy to care for Damon, and had asked LaDawn to bring his playpen over.

What no one but LaDawn knew was that Damon was alone, locked in the old Auburn apartment, the radio blasting and beanbag chairs barricading the room. An eviction notice was hung on the front door.

FUTURE LOOKS TROUBLED

Damon Ryan Jump is no longer alone. He and his sister are living in a King County foster home for special-needs children.

But the boy may suffer long-term damage, physically and emotionally, because of his bad start in life.

"He may be withdrawn, fearful, apprehensive," said Dr. F. Curt Bennett, a University of Washington pediatrician and professor. He said normal attachment should be established in the first three months of life; lacking that, Damon may have trouble bonding.

In court documents released earlier this week, doctors said a brain scan, skeletal survey and other tests showed Damon will suffer some loss of brain function that could be permanent. Because of malnutrition, his skeletal growth has been arrested.

"The harm the child suffered was greater than we thought," said King County Deputy Prosecutor Hugh Barber.

Hundreds of people from around the country, having heard Damon's story, called to ask how he is. Truckloads of clothes have been donated to foster children in his name. And dozens of families have offered to adopt him.

"This baby needs to be adopted by a good home, but if the adoptive family called me ahead of time and asked me the risks . . . I would have to tell them honestly there are still real risks," Bennett said.

And there are still two other people with a claim on the Jump children - their parents.

Joe Jump received word of his son's abandonment on the TV news at jail. He wrote an anguished letter to his mother, asking for her help. "As you know I have a son, a very beautiful baby boy named Damon Ryan. He seems to have an angel on his side."

Joe Jump said he wants a chance to take better care of his children. He said he has been accepted at a Seattle drug-rehabilitation center that has a residential program for families.

"I need to make some changes in my life," he said. "I have two babies to take care of."

He said he and LaDawn have been exchanging letters from their respective jail cells. "She's extremely remorseful, apologetic. She begged me, asked if I could ever forgive her."

And LaDawn Jump still maintains she will do anything to get her children back.

"I love my kids," she said. "I love them with all of my heart. I just didn't know where to go for help."

Seattle Times staff reporters Matthew Ebnet and Nancy Bartley contributed to this report.

To comment on the story, contact Susan Gilmore at 206-464-2054, or by e-mail at: sugi-new@seatimes.com

----------------------------------- Key dates in the life of Damon Jump -----------------------------------

Aug. 17, 1996

- Joe Jump is jailed for driving drunk and without a license. Daughter Ariel, 17 months, is in the car at the time. LaDawn Jump is eight months pregnant with their son, Damon.

Sept. 10, 1996:

- Damon is born with a heart defect. Surgery performed two days later at Children's in Seattle.

Sept.-Oct. 1996:

- LaDawn rarely visits Damon during his recovery from surgery.

- Hospital staff notify Child Protective Services that family might need help after Damon is released.

- LaDawn rents an apartment in Cashmere, Chelan County. She abandons three dogs at former home in East Wenatchee.

Oct. 18, 1996:

- Damon is released from the hospital.

Christmas 1996:

- LaDawn takes both children to her mother's home in Auburn for the holiday.

Feb. 14, 1997:

- Neighbors file report with Chelan County Sheriff's Department saying LaDawn has left children alone in apartment. LaDawn's sister, Carla, tells police she and her boyfriend are watching the children.

- Deputies file report with Child Protective Services; soon after, CPS opens a case file on the Jumps and labels it "low risk."

Feb. 16, 1997:

- Police arrest LaDawn on an outstanding traffic warrant. She is booked into Chelan County Jail for five days. Her sister watches the children overnight.

Feb. 17, 1997:

- Joe Jump is released from jail and moves home. He takes charge of children.

Late March 1997:

- A neighbor calls Sheriff's Department to say LaDawn has stolen her VCR. Investigating police find Damon has been left alone in the apartment. LaDawn is jailed overnight. Joe is at work. CPS takes temporary custody of the children but soon reunites the family.

- CPS refers Jump-family case to Chelan-Douglas Health District. Public-health nurse is assigned.

April 1997:

- CPS reviews Jump-family case and essentially closes file six weeks later. CPS officials said they had received no more complaints about the Jumps - a claim relatives and neighbors dispute.

Mother's Day 1997:

- Joe Jump's mother, Sharon Jump, of Oregon, gets a Mother's Day card and learns for the first time that she has a grandson.

May 1997:

- Stepmother Kelly Griffith said she calls CPS about Jump children's welfare twice.

- CPS Supervisor Tim Abbey in Wenatchee acknowledges getting a call about the Jumps, but says he can't reveal details.

- Damon is taken for his last known medical checkup.

June 5, 1997:

- Sheriff's Department records anonymous call saying Jump children have been left alone. Deputies arrive and an unnamed neighbor says she's watching the children. No charges are brought and CPS is not contacted. Deputies are apparently unaware of previous complaints about the Jumps.

Summer 1997:

- Family moves to apartment in Auburn. Family is all together. Joe is working.

August 1997:

- LaDawn spends two days in jail for unpaid traffic fines.

- Joe's probation is revoked for failure to complete alcohol and drug treatment. A warrant is issued for his arrest.

Sept. 10, 1997:

- Family celebrates Damon's birthday with a small party.

Oct. 12, 1997:

- Family has friends over for turkey dinner.

Oct. 13, 1997:

- Joe Jump is arrested on traffic charges and sentenced to six months at Auburn Jail.

October 1997

- LaDawn moves into boyfriend's Kent apartment with Ariel. She leaves 13-month-old Damon, who still doesn't walk, alone in Auburn apartment, visiting every few days to bring him food.

Nov. 8, 1997

- The last day, according to police reports, that LaDawn said she checked on Damon, leaving him food.

Nov. 13, 1997:

- Jumps' apartment complex in Auburn catches fire. Police find Damon alone on the floor, malnourished, listless, thumb sucked raw.

- Joe Jump learns of son's abandonment from the TV in jail.

- LaDawn Jump turns herself in and is jailed on charges of second-degree child abandonment.

- Both children are put into special-needs foster care.

Dec. 11, 1997:

- In court hearing on LaDawn Jump's case, experts say malnutrition has likely caused permanent damage to Damon. Charges against her are upgraded to first-degree child abandonment. Trial is pending.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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