Q&A: What ex-journalist who covered child abuse says about preventing it

  • "We have to talk about this, and we have to learn about the things that are failing in our system," Britten Follett says.

    "We have to talk about this, and we have to learn about the things that are failing in our system," Britten Follett says. Courtesy of Britten Follett

 
 
Updated 4/28/2016 7:19 PM

The question gnaws at Britten Follett every single day:

What happened to Kelsey Smith-Briggs?

 

More than a decade after she began covering Kelsey's murder, the former broadcast journalist still wants answers, still wonders if she'll ever know the truth.

No one was convicted in the killing of the blonde, blue-eyed Oklahoma toddler. But Kelsey's mother and stepfather remain in prison on charges of enabling child abuse.

Follett, a Marengo native, co-authored a book detailing a "complete failure of the system" that was supposed to protect the girl. Now living in Woodstock and working for her family's business, Follett tries to cope with Kelsey's case by shining a spotlight on what's often a taboo topic.

"We need to make child abuse prevention a dinner table conversation," she says.

Follett is serving as the chairwoman for a fundraising gala Saturday for the Children's Advocacy Center of North and Northwest Cook County. The nonprofit group provides a "safe place" -- a former farmhouse in Hoffman Estates -- where children can speak up about physical and sexual abuse and find counseling.

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Tickets are sold out for the event at 6 p.m. at Medinah Country Club. Ahead of the gala, Follett talked with the Daily Herald about her mission and Kelsey's story. This is an edited version of the conversation.

Q. How did you get involved with planning the fundraiser?

A. A former colleague of mine recommended the Children's Advocacy Center. They were looking for a chair for their gala and my former colleague knew my passion was in advocacy for child abuse prevention.

I visited and toured the facility and was immediately impressed by both the staff and the mission of the organization. The fact that it provides a safe place for children who are victims of sexual abuse to share their story one time -- in front of all the people who need to hear that story -- really was in line with my mission.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Q. Tell us about how that mission started as a reporter covering Kelsey's death.

A. Over the course of five years reporting in Oklahoma City, I covered the case from day one all the way through both criminal trials, and it just exposed me to problems in the system.

Kelsey had two broken legs, a broken collarbone, a number of bruises, was in state custody at the time of her death, and a judge put her back into the home where the abuse had taken place.

At 2½, Kelsey was not verbal yet ... She was never able to make a statement that specifically called out either the mom or the stepfather as the abuser.

And so I always say, had it been six months later and had she had a place like the Children's Advocacy Center to feel safe and feel as if it was a place she could share her story, the outcome might have been much different.

Kelsey Smith-Briggs, an Oklahoma toddler, was killed in 2005.
Kelsey Smith-Briggs, an Oklahoma toddler, was killed in 2005. - Courtesy of Britten Follett

Q. What type of kid was Kelsey?

I've only seen videos obviously, but she was happy. I think the thing that resonates with me the most is she had two broken legs. She was in two casts, full casts, and she's stumbling around smiling.

And I think every kid wants to love their mom and love their stepdad, and you saw in the home videos, you can see Kelsey running toward Raye Dawn (her mom). And so it makes it hard to believe someone could hurt a little child in that way.

But it also shows that it can happen in any household.

The thing I feel passionate about is having a platform to talk about the fact that we need to make sure we're discussing child abuse. People avoid it because they think, "Oh, well it happens behind closed doors and that's their problem."

But more children die from child abuse than soldiers die in Iraq. And when you look at that, we are constantly talking about the war and protecting our soldiers.

"I think about it every day," says Britten Follett, a former broadcast journalist who co-authored a book, "Who Killed Kelsey?" about the killing of an Oklahoma child abuse victim. Follet will serve as chairwoman at a fundraising gala Saturday for the Children's Advocacy Center of North and Northwest Cook County.
"I think about it every day," says Britten Follett, a former broadcast journalist who co-authored a book, "Who Killed Kelsey?" about the killing of an Oklahoma child abuse victim. Follet will serve as chairwoman at a fundraising gala Saturday for the Children's Advocacy Center of North and Northwest Cook County. - Courtesy of Britten Follett

Q. Why did you make a career change (Follett is now vice president of marketing at Westchester-based Follett)?

A. When I got out of television news, it was partially because I had done every story twice. Three times.

Kelsey's caseworkers were not fired. They failed to report a number of things and follow proper protocol in this whole process, and there was actually a caseworker in the home the day she died, a couple hours before.

That's not to say the caseworker could have stopped her death, nor can I say they were 100 percent responsible for her death. But they were responsible for not following the rules that were in place to protect her, and they were not punished.

But I got tired of telling the same story. ... I wasn't making the impact I wanted to make as a reporter.

And so I think getting out of television and having a platform like the gala coming up to talk about it, I can reach a different audience. That part has been rewarding for me, to continue to share Kelsey's story.

Q. What do you tell that audience about preventing child abuse?

A. I think it's up to all of us. I really do. I don't think it's necessarily one donor or one organization.

I think we as a society have to say we need to protect our children. They're our most vulnerable population and we put every effort into protecting other segments of the population, but we just don't talk about this.

One of my first speeches was to my university; it was students at Southern Illinois University. I really had to think about what my core mission was. It's a sad story, but how can I make them care?

What has continued to be my core message is that we need to make child abuse prevention a dinner table conversation. I challenged them to ask their politician at the next town hall what they're doing to protect children.

In times of budget crisis, these programs that are in place to help children are in dire straits. And it's easy to cut funding from programs, but when the outcome is a child death, everybody's going to look at it with a lot more scrutiny.

And so I think asking questions about what people are doing to protect children is kind of the core mission that all of us are responsible for.

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