"I was kept from my daughter for six months," said Amber Huggins, a Marion native now living in Knoxville, Tenn. "I looked everywhere for them (Lauren and her 9-year-old sister) for six months."
Five-year-old Lauren's father, Ryan McConniel, and stepmother, Brittany McConniel, have been charged with felony neglect of a dependent resulting in Lauren's death on March 9.
"I did not have the financial resources to have an attorney," Amber said this week in a telephone interview. "Ryan had an attorney and I did not. There was no other reason he got custody. I was not an unfit mother. I never hurt my children."
Ryan kept the older daughter, but let Amber have Lauren starting at Christmas of 2008 after Amber filed a complaint of child abuse.
"She had bruises on her," Amber said. "I asked her what happened and she said she didn't know. I took pictures of the bruises but they were old and not good quality pictures. Child protective services in White County said it was not enough."
Amber had Lauren until August 2009 when Ryan took her back. He gave Knoxville police an address in Winchester where he said he would be living.
But Amber later traveled to Winchester, and, accompanied by the police, went to the address Ryan had provided to Knoxville police.
Nobody had lived at the address in a long time.
"I sent numerous e-mails begging them to give me their address," Amber said. "I was told they were living in Winchester. I heard they were living in Farmland. I heard Fort Wayne. I heard Muncie. I heard everything."Amber said Ryan and Brittany responded by e-mail that she could see the girls when they got old enough to decide for themselves if they wanted to see her.
"My daughter was alive and perfectly happy and normal and healthy when she was with me," Amber said. "She was a normal delivery, a normal pregnancy and a normal daughter. I should be signing her up for kindergarten and she should be cheerleading."
After Lauren's death, child protective services removed the 9-year-old from Ryan and Brittany's custody and placed her in foster care.
On March 19, Muncie attorney Kimberly Dowling, representing Amber, filed a petition for emergency custody of the 9-year-old, who now lives with Amber. The petition said Lauren was emaciated, significantly bruised and had elevated salt levels in her blood when she died.
"Child protective services in Arkansas was involved in December of 2008 or January of 2009 over allegations that Lauren had bruises," said Muncie police Sgt. Jimmy Gibson. "They investigated it, and I believe it was reported by the father and stepmother that Lauren was now living with the bio-mom, so the case was closed. The father and stepmother reported that Lauren had bumped into a trash can. The bio-mom had pictures of bruising but I think they were taken with a cell phone and weren't very good."
The Lees remain under investigation by Gibson for failure to report child abuse and neglect.
"Hopefully, some family might come forward and have a conscience and do the right thing," Gibson said. "The uncle next door threatened to call child protective services but never did."Angie Lee gave police a statement, while Samra Lee declined to be interviewed, according to Gibson. Robert E. Lee went in for a police interview but reported he was hurting and ended up putting himself in the hospital, according to Gibson. "He said he needed to leave and never came back."