McFeely: Family of slain child says multiple people called Otter Tail County social services
FERGUS FALLS, Minn.—The family of a 6-year-old boy slain in Fergus Falls says it knows of multiple people who called social services in Otter Tail County to warn of possible abuse by the child's accused killers, but says nothing was done.
The child's mother also says she called social services two times in the days leading up to his death.
Four family members of Justis Burland from Washington and Montana were at the Otter Tail County courthouse on Tuesday, April 17, for a closed custody hearing for Justis' surviving twin brother, Xavier. The boys' mother, Misty Truitt of Spokane, Wash., and grandmother, Norma Burland of Polson, Mont., made a plea to take Xavier back to Washington to be near family.
The hearing was attended briefly by one of Justis' accused killers, Bobbie Bishop of Fergus Falls, who has one-year temporary custody of the children.
District Court Judge Sharon Benson declined to give custody to the family, according to Truitt, saying that Norma Burland, the children's legal guardian until recently, gave up the children to Justis' accused killers.
"They wouldn't give Xavier to my mom because my mom was the one to put their care in (Bishop's) name," Truitt said after the 90-minute hearing. "But my mom was totally unaware that she was this kind of person or capable of these things. She thought she was doing the right thing."
Benson scheduled another court date on April 25 for a final decision on whether to place Xavier in foster care or return him to his family.
Bishop, 40, and Walt Wynhoff, 42, also of Fergus Falls, were charged last week with five felonies in Justis' death, including second-degree murder without intent, first-degree manslaughter, two counts of second-degree manslaughter, and malicious punishment of a child resulting in great bodily harm.
Bishop brought Justis to Lake Region Healthcare in Fergus Falls on the morning of April 9. The boy was unresponsive and, according to court documents, had injuries from head to foot. Authorities believe he was beaten, tortured and neglected for a lengthy period, possibly months.
Norma Burland, saying she was both physically and financially unable to care for the growing boys, dropped them off at the rural Otter Tail County residence of Bishop and Wynhoff in early August 2017. The couple, described as longtime family friends, later moved into a house in Fergus Falls.
According to Kayloni Nelson of Spokane, Justis' cousin who was at Tuesday's hearing, a neighbor—who Nelson named but The Forum was unable to immediately confirm—called child protective services shortly after the children began living with Bishop and Wynhoff to voice concern about the children's treatment. Nelson said another person who lived with Bishop and Wynhoff—also named by Nelson—also called social services over Bishop's treatment of the boys.
At a vigil for Justis held Monday night at Hilltop Celebration Church in Fergus Falls, Nelson said, a woman who identified herself as Wynhoff's niece stood up to say she called social services.
Truitt said she called the county on March 27 and April 2 to express concern about Bishop, who according to court documents was petitioning for full custody of Justis and Xavier.
Deb Sjostrom, Human Services Director for Otter Tail County, said in an email the county could not comment.
"Otter Tail County Human Services is unable to comment on individual cases due to data privacy laws," Sjostrom wrote. "In this case there is an active investigation and whether or not reports of maltreatment had been received or parties contacted this agency will be a part of that investigation."
The county's public information officer, Shannon Terry, earlier referred media to an outline of the process the Human Services Department follows when child maltreatment is reported.
Members of Justis' family say they are exploring a lawsuit against the county because of what they see as inaction.
"They never even visited the house," said Greg Hill, the boys' uncle who was at the courthouse. "If you have family members calling child protective services to tell them what's going on, I mean. ... Multiple phone calls were made to tell them what was going on with those kids and they didn't do anything."
For now, Truitt said the family's immediate goal is to get Xavier back to Spokane because he doesn't know anybody in Minnesota other than Bishop and Wynhoff. Truitt, though, said the judge denied even visitation rights at the hearing. She said it's likely the next custody hearing will have to be done by phone because she, her mother, Nelson and Hill can't afford to stay in Fergus Falls until next week.
The Fergus Falls lawyer who represented Burland and Truitt at the hearing, Matthew Jorud, declined comment.
"I just want Xavier back home. I know now it's going to be some time, but I just want him back home as soon as possible," Truitt said. "I know he's going through a lot and it would help him a lot to see us. It's wrong that we can't even see him."