It was only after seeing a news article that Josie Ann Abney’s biological family knew the 10-year-old girl they’d once cared for as an infant had been starved to death in her adopted parent’s Salem home. Her great grandmother, Estella Wallace, was the first to make the discovery from her Birch Tree home in Shannon County.
“I didn’t even know the people’s names until it came out on the news,” Wallace says. “I saw it and texted my granddaughter and asked are these the people that adopted Josie? She said yes, and I said ‘Did you read it? They killed her!’”
Life since has been one of gruesome facts and angry questions for Josie’s Shannon County kin. The feelings are made all the worse by their spurned hopes of having Josie join their family.
“We don’t have any rights, so we haven’t seen her since she was four years old,” Wallace says. “Something went wrong somewhere, and it needs to be addressed.”
The girl Salem now knows as Josie Ann Abney was born in Poplar Bluff as Jocelyn Abrianna Chadwell on Feb. 6, 2010. Her mother, Hannah Chadwell, gave birth to Josie at 17 years old. In the beginning, the family bonds were tight in Birch Tree, and Josie’s first months of life were spent surrounded by a loving family.
“When we first brought her home all we cared about was her,” says Justice Chadwell, Hannah’s brother and Josie’s uncle. “Jocelyn was full of joy and was everything to us. We fed her, we took care of her, we made sure she had everything she needed.”
It was only months after Josie was born that life took a tragic turn. Her granddad, Hannah’s father, died from complications of Barrett’s Esophagus.
“Everything started going downhill,” Justice says of the aftermath. “My mom, Hannah and I all lived in the same house; but then Hannah moved out with the baby.”
Disputes soon erupted in the family while Hannah struggled to live on her own.
“I was living on the streets in Missouri, and I couldn't imagine having [Josie] live on the streets with me at that time,” Hannah said in a message to The Salem News. “I let her stay with an old friend of my ex’s, and she said that it was fine for her to stay there, but then DFS got called and that's when Josie went into state custody at the age of 3.”
From Shannon County, Josie was sent to be fostered with Randall and Susan Abney in 2013. Her Shannon County family hoped to keep a relationship with Josie during those early years. They bought her presents while she stayed in the foster home, and another uncle hoped to potentially adopt Josie.
The last time Josie’s Shannon County family remembers seeing her was during a visit to Elephant Rocks State Park. The arrangement with the Abneys was made by Hannah. They hoped the time spent with Josie playing on the massive boulders would be the beginning of an ongoing relationship with her, instead it was the last time they saw Josie alive.
“The court took my parental rights away in 2015,” Hannah says. “I couldn't talk to my daughter, and I couldn't find any information on her at all.”
The extended family in Shannon County was also cut off when the Abneys became Josie’s legal guardians.
“They stopped letting us see her,” Estella Wallace says. “It was like she disappeared.”
Justice Chadwell says all they were able to learn was Josie was somewhere near Salem with her adopted parents.
“Since she was adopted, we tried everything in our power to get ahold of those people,” Justice says. “We wanted to come see her and have visits. We all loved Josie. We even called social services and tried to get a lawyer so we’d be able to see Jocelyn. We cared so much for her and just wanted to be in her life.”
Then Oct. 3 came. Josie was declared deceased at Salem Memorial District Hospital after first responders found her starved and dehydrated. Randall and Susan Abney have since been charged with felony neglect or abuse of a child resulting in death. Both are incarcerated in the Dent County Jail awaiting trial.
Like everyone else, Josie’s Shannon County family first heard about a 10-year-old girl being starved in Salem. It was only after hearing the name Josie they investigated further and learned it was Hannah’s daughter. They never received any official communications or notifications from the state. It has been only by reading the news they’ve learned the circumstances of Josie’s death and about her funeral in Salem.
Josie’s death is the latest blow for the family. Hannah and Justice’s mother died earlier this year from a stroke. Now, with her parents dead, and her daughter buried under the surname of her alleged killers, Hannah says all she wants are answers. Like the rest of her family, and Salem at large, the questions remain of why Josie was not given food or water, why was the home’s refrigerator locked and why was Josie not allowed to go back to school this August.
“I just need to know why,” Justice concludes. “Why would they do something like this when we were willing to adopt her so she’d have a family?”