Teen's Death After Years of 'Unspeakable' Abuse Could Have Been Prevented by Health Officials: Investigation

An investigation into 16-year-old Sabrina Ray's death at the hands of her abusive adopted parents found it could have been prevented and without people being vigilant, Iowa state ombudsman Kristie Hirschman fears it could happen again.

After years of abuse, Sabrina was found deceased in her Perry, Iowa, home in 2017, weighing only 56 pounds. The "evil" in the home shocked officers on the scene and her adopted parents, Misty and Marc Ray were sentenced to life in prison with a total of five family members pleading guilty and receiving prison sentences.

Having concluded her investigation, she determined that with more rigorous oversight and communication between people who had knowledge of the rampant abuse, Sabrina's death could have been prevented. News of the case sent "a chill" down Hirschman's spine and conducting the investigation brought her to tears.

"I cried for her siblings and the foster care children who witnessed the abuse, or were subjected to it. And I cried for those who tried to sound the alarm, especially a foster-care worker named Shelby Messersmith, whose concerns were dismissed or silenced by her supervisors," Hirschman said.

Messersmith filed multiple abuse reports, including that the Rays weren't refilling a child's Ritalin prescription, withheld food as a form of discipline and forced a foster child to eat his own vomit. She also attempted to report bruising on one of the foster children but was told by her supervisor, Susan Smalley, that she could not make the report to DHS and Messersmith told Hirschman she raised concerns with ongoing-services worker Marcia Hoffman, as well, but "never felt like she was taken seriously."

sabrina ray death ombudsman report
A report from the Iowa state ombudsman found the 2017 death of 16-year-old Sabrina Ray could have been prevented if health officials were more vigilant. Google Maps

Among the missteps taken in the case was that the three foster children, the Millers, were able to remain in the home despite their license being placed on "hold" because of a report that they denied critical care.

"The decision to keep the Millers in the Ray home as new concerns and child abuse reports continued to be filed was unfathomable," Hirschman's report said.

Iowa DHS was "intimately familiar" with the Ray family, as they'd been licensed to run an in-home daycare and they had been subject to 11 child abuse reports. The agency's most recent unannounced home compliance visit took place five months before Sabrina's death.

Hirschman's report found the DHS wrongly rejected some of the child abuse reports against the Rays, kept inaccurate records and failed to retain them long enough to allow workers to identify patterns of abuse. She also called it "unfathomable" that DHS didn't conduct an internal review of its own actions and decisions leading up to Sabrina's death.

Matt Highland, a public information officer for the Iowa DHS, told Newsweek the team is "deeply saddened" by Sabrina's death. Committed to learning from the tragedy, he said since the investigation began, the department "took action and continues to take action to improve the way we support Iowa families."

When Sabrina, who was placed in the home in 2011 and adopted in 2013, was found deceased in her home, she was lying on a small mattress on the floor wearing a diaper and tank-top. Her body was "nearly withered out of existence," according to Officer Josh Sienkiewicz. There was an alarm on her bedroom door and screws were placed on the windows to keep them from opening. The family also had locks and alarms on food and beverage pantries in the kitchen and family room.

At the time of Sabrina's death, Hirschman was investigating the death of Natalie Finn, who was abused by her adopted mother, and a third investigation is underway for the death of a child under similar circumstances. Having seen what slipped through the cracks with Sabrina and other children, Hirschman is fearful for the fate of children forced to stay home from school because of the new coronavirus.

"Sabrina, too, stayed home during her time in the Ray household, purportedly for homeschooling," Hirschman said. "...I am fearful that those who try to hide abuse will now have an easier and greater opportunity to do so."

Given the "challenging and unsettling times" America's facing, Hirschman stressed people must remain vigilant to identify and report suspected abuse. "I urge you to trust your instincts," she said.