Helpless and hopeless.
That’s how Kelsey Kruse felt for years as she tried to co-parent with her ex and his wife, Brett and Sarah Hallow.
And then one day, she got the call she was scared of.
Eight-year-old Autumn was found dead in the bathtub at her dad’s apartment in Elk River, Minn.
“I knew this was going to happen,” Kelsey said to the police when they told her Autumn was dead. “I tried to get help.”
CONSTANTLY ACCUSED OF HARASSING THEM
Kelsey was 17 when she met Brett. They were both attending Ivan Sand ALC in Elk River. Brett was known as “the player,” but Kelsey ignored what everyone said about him. He was unfaithful the four years they were together.
But he was charming. He could convince her that she was crazy, nothing happened, and he wasn’t being unfaithful. He could cry instantly if he wanted to, she recalled.
“I feel bad for the person that was me when I was younger,” Kelsey remarked. “I feel bad for the me that was pregnant and watching him walk out the door and not coming back for days.”
She gave birth to Noah when she was 19 on Sept. 20, 2010, and got pregnant again just three months after his birth with their daughter, Autumn. She was born Aug. 24, 2011. “It was never physical, just verbal,” she remembered. “I was naive.”
They split up in early 2013. At first, Brett had the two- and three-year-old every other weekend at his mom’s house. Kelsey did all the transportation for visits and provided everything for them there, including beds, clothes and groceries. He wasn’t paying child support, so she filed for it in the middle of 2013. He filed for custody at the end of 2013.
If he had custody, his child support would be reduced.
Kelsey was young, didn’t have any money for an attorney, and had heard that the judge would give him 50/50 anyway. So, she agreed to joint physical and legal custody. They set up a parenting schedule where the two kids were with mom for one week, and with dad for one week. They exchanged the kids on Sundays.
Sarah came into the picture pretty early on, and she and Brett married in 2017. Sarah had a child of her own who was a little bit older than Noah, and a restraining order against the dad.
“She was good at restraining orders,” said Kelsey. “She had one against her parents, she threatened Brett’s mom, and she had one against me.”
There was an altercation between Kelsey and Sarah one day during drop-off. Kelsey brought Sarah’s daughter a gift from Brett’s mom, and during the exchange Kelsey allegedly shoved the gift into Sarah’s shoulder. Sarah threw the gift at Kelsey and kicked her. A week later, Kelsey was served by a sheriff’s deputy at home with a restraining order, alleging she had ripped the stitches in Sarah’s shoulder from a recent surgery. “It was ridiculous. I couldn’t believe they approved the restraining order without hearing from me,” said Kelsey.
“I was constantly accused by Sarah of harassing them.” In court, Sarah spoke for Brett. Tenth Judicial Court Judge Mary Yunker ordered that Kelsey could only contact Sarah because Brett had disabilities “and I caused him to have seizures frequently,” recalled Kelsey. “I’ve never seen a seizure. She didn’t show any proof.”
Brett blocked Kelsey’s number so he didn’t get the messages she sent about the kids’ education and medical care. “They said I never told him,” said Kelsey. “It was very manipulative. They tried to make it seem like everything was my fault all the time. There was a lot of blaming. If something went wrong, it was always my fault or the kids’ fault.”
Sarah told Kelsey that she had just as much right to her kids as Kelsey did. “I don’t know why she wanted my kids so much,” remarked Kelsey.
“The step-parents are hard to get along with because they want your kids to be their kids. They’re playing house.”
She observed, “I think that’s why she started abusing Noah. Because she hated me.”
CHARGED WITH CONTEMPT
One Sunday, Noah came home and the whole right side of his cheek was bruised and swollen.
Brett told Kelsey that Noah had fallen while playing with one of his two half-siblings and hit his face. Kelsey believed what Brett said until later that night. She was getting the kids ready for bed when Autumn told her: “Sarah hit Noah for having an accident in his pants.” When Kelsey asked Noah, he told her that Sarah hit him, he fell backwards and hit the bed frame.
When confronted, Sarah admitted to “grazing his lips with two fingertips, he flinched, and fell.”
Kelsey went to Elk River Police Department, and they pulled in Sherburne County Child Protection Service (CPS), but it didn’t go anywhere.
Noah came home with bruises again. He had bruises on his chin that looked like fingerprints, and a darkened eye that wasn’t quite a black eye.
This time his school counselor reported the injuries to child protection.
CPS interviewed both kids at school and said it would be a good idea if Kelsey kept him a few extra days. Kelsey remembers feeling like it was a good thing they were involved, and she believed they would help.
But they closed the investigation within two weeks saying that Noah’s story had changed, and told Kelsey he needed to resume visits with his dad. Noah was crying and said he didn’t want to go, and they made Kelsey stay outside the apartment while they talked to Brett. She asked if she could say goodbye to Noah. They wouldn’t let her.
Brett and Sarah brought Kelsey back to court to have her charged with contempt for not sending Noah to their house. Judge Yunker charged her and removed the kids from her care for five straight weeks, saying Brett was entitled to the make-up days.
When the kids were at their dad’s, they wouldn’t let her talk to them on the phone. Kelsey went to their school to have lunch with them as many days as she could, which Brett and Sarah tried to stop so she had no contact with them at all.
“I felt very helpless and hopeless,” Kelsey recalled.
Neither Brett nor Sarah were working, and Kelsey was paying them child support.
She couldn’t afford an attorney to argue against the accusations.
ACCUSED OF COACHING SON TO REPORT ABUSE
In September 2019, Brett refused to let Kelsey pick the kids up for their regular Sunday exchange, saying he got extra days. Noah wasn’t at school on Monday, and hadn’t been there the Friday before either. She called the police and asked for a welfare check. The police officer talked to Brett and Sarah, saw Noah, and reported back to Kelsey that Noah was fine. Brett and Sarah agreed Kelsey could pick him up that afternoon.
When she did, she saw he had bruises all over his face, back, bellybutton and legs. The police officer had seen the marks firsthand, as well, and hadn’t mentioned them to Kelsey.
Noah said a kid kicked him on the playground, and that’s how he had the bruise on his temple. He said his foot was swollen because it got stuck in a hole. He said his stomach injury was because he fell off the playground. He said he didn’t know how he got the rest of the bruises.
Kelsey reached out to a co-parenting support group she was part of online and asked for advice.
Then she took him to the Mercy Hospital emergency room. They made a report to CPS, who didn’t call her back for a few days. She dropped Noah off at school and he went back to his dad’s house. CPS interviewed him in front of Brett and Sarah.
“I think it’s crazy they did that. You don’t talk to a kid in front of the people that are being accused of abusing them,” said Kelsey.
Again, CPS closed the investigation without any findings of abuse or charges against Brett or Sarah.
Instead, CPS accused Kelsey of coaching Noah and of using this as a tactic to get more custody in court.
“I trusted them to know how to do their job,” said Kelsey.
People tell Kelsey they wouldn’t have kept sending him to his dad’s house.
“I was so terrified of losing custody. They already brought me in for contempt and won. I felt like I didn’t have a choice but to keep sending him,” explained Kelsey.
‘A CORRUPT SYSTEM’
Things weren’t getting better, but seemed to be escalating five years after Kelsey and Brett had split up. The post-separation abuse included the legal abuse and financial abuse directed at Kelsey, and the neglectful, abusive parenting and isolation directed at the kids. She felt like Brett and Sarah were fighting for control, while she was fighting for the safety of Noah.
Noah kept saying he was being abused at his dad’s house. He told his school counselor at Lincoln Elementary that he was scared to go back there for the weekend. He said he was being forced to stay up all night and clean, and then go to school the next day without having slept. He described being forced to swallow liquid dish soap and being confined to a bedroom for hours as punishment for not doing his chores. He said he was being forced to sleep on the floor without a pillow or blanket. He talked about being hit. He wasn’t getting help with his homework. He wasn’t allowed to read or color, and had to sit still all day. He couldn’t play.
He said he was forced to stick his tongue out and then Sarah would push down on his head so that he bit his tongue.
He told CPS he didn’t feel safe at his dad and stepmom’s house.
“When Noah came to me, I had no reason not to believe him. I knew how Brett and Sarah treated me and I believed what Noah said,” Kelsey stated.
But no one else was listening to him. Or, to her.
“To brush that off is unacceptable,” she said.
She knows they aren’t alone in this. Since Autumn’s death, many people have reached out to tell her they’ve experienced the same thing with CPS, schools, Guardians ad Litem, parenting consultants, therapists, police officers, custody evaluators, and family court professionals who ignore the patterns of abuse, label the mother as a problem, insist she stop putting the kids in the middle, and tell her she needs to communicate better.
“It’s so messed up and so corrupt. You think, how is it ever going to change?”
At first, Kelsey thought that having had CPS be involved would hold some weight in family court. It ended up being exactly opposite. Instead, the judge tossed it out because CPS had closed the case, even though they never did a complete investigation.
Kelsey decided she was never sending Noah back.
She negotiated a new custody arrangement with Brett, and agreed to give up time with Autumn in order to keep Noah safe. She would now spend three weeks with her dad and one with her mom. Noah was supposed to spend one week with his dad and three weeks with Autumn, but didn’t end up going to his dad’s again.
At the start, Kelsey wasn’t worried about Autumn. “I had no reason to believe she was being abused. I thought Autumn was spoiled. That’s how she made it seem,” explained Kelsey. In contrast, Noah was the scapegoat in the family and constantly being punished.
They took a family trip at the end of December 2019, right before Kelsey and longtime boyfriend Justin Osterbauer welcomed a baby girl in January 2020. Autumn met her new baby sister, Delylah, the day she was born. Jan. 26, 2020 was the last time she was home.
‘I TRIED SO HARD TO GET PEOPLE TO LISTEN’
In March 2020, Kelsey arrived to pick up Autumn but Brett cited concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic and wouldn’t exchange her.
As time went on and Brett continued to refuse to send Autumn back or let her speak to her mom on the phone, Kelsey got increasingly concerned. Brett also stopped responding to messages through their court-approved service, Our Family Wizard.
Kelsey heard from people who lived at the three-story apartment complex that they were hearing children screaming and crying in Brett’s second-story apartment, and they were reporting it to the Elk River Police Department. A neighbor recorded the sound of a girl screaming multiple times, and shared it with the police department. Another called when they were woken up in the middle of the night by a child screaming, “Get off me.” One heard an adult threaten to hit a kid. In all, reports show officers were called to the apartment over 30 times. Sometimes Brett or Sarah answered, and said the children were misbehaving or attributed the noise to a loud television and video games.
Kelsey tried to get help through the family court system in April, but Judge Mary Yunker (whose current term expires in 2025) declined to hear the case saying that Kruse failed to properly serve notice to Autumn’s father and that Kruse “failed to demonstrate that the current circumstances constitute an emergency.”
She called Sherburne County CPS on Mother’s Day, but they told her if the cops couldn’t get the couple to answer the door how did she expect them to. The woman who answered the phone said they’d look into it, but Kelsey never heard back from them.
“I tried so hard to get people to listen to me about helping Autumn,” Kelsey said.
Kelsey continued going to Brett’s apartment on Sundays to pick up Autumn for the exchange, but they never sent her outside.
“I’d sit out there for hours waiting,” recalled Kelsey. Sometimes she’d see a curtain move. She called the police five times between May 10 and Aug. 2. The officers sometimes spoke to Brett or Sarah but didn’t see Autumn up close. They saw Autumn from the balcony once in June. Often, the apartment lights were turned off when police arrived in the parking lot and no one answered.
“At first, they would come out to the apartment and meet me, try to make contact with Brett, and then eventually, they would stop even coming there,” Kruse said. “The more that I called, the less help that I got.”
People tell her they would have knocked the door down to get to their child. When she hears this, Kelsey knows they don’t have experience with family court or with someone like Brett or Sarah who know how to manipulate the system for money. They don’t know how the system works and how often mothers lose custody. They don’t know that fear. They don’t know how stuck you feel.
“When I really needed help, I couldn’t get it,” Kelsey said.
She had piles of documentation, of reports, of OFW messages. “It’s so overwhelming,” she remarked. “It’s overwhelming to be in family court for so many years. It makes you feel helpless. You don’t want to go through it.”
LOSING A CHILD
On Aug. 13, 2020, after six months of not seeing her daughter, Kelsey’s phone rang. It was Sarah’s father, and Kelsey almost didn’t answer the call. He told Kelsey that Autumn was “unresponsive.” Kelsey rushed to the apartment complex, and found her mom already there. That’s when she understood Autumn was dead. She collapsed.
One of the hardest things Kelsey had to do was tell Noah that his sister was gone.
The funeral home suggested they have a closed casket because of how emaciated the eight-year-old was, but Kelsey explained it was important for her loved ones to see her one last time because it had been so long since they had. She bought her little girl a wig to wear.
There were a lot of details Kelsey didn’t know until the murder trial a year later.
At the time of her death, Autumn weighed only 33 pounds. “She weighed more than that at her four-year doctor appointment,” said Kelsey. She should have been about 70 pounds.
“I think losing a child is the greatest loss you can endure,” Kruse said in court. “I lay in bed and close my eyes and picture what she looked like before she died.”
Brett and Sarah pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and first-degree manslaughter. In September 2021, Judge Karen Schommer gave them both the maximum sentence of 40 years in prison. They both appealed the decision and were denied.
According to the Center for Judicial Excellence, 833 children have been murdered by a divorcing or separating parent since 2008. “It is estimated that each year in the U.S., tens of thousands of children are court-ordered into the custody of an abusive parent, frequently without supervision or other safeguards in place. Throughout the world, dangerous parents are using family court systems to harm children and former partners, continuing their post-separation abuse with little oversight and accountability,” according to the National Safe Parents Coalition. “While these problems have been widely studied and documented, children continue to be sent into harm’s way.”
Kelsey has filed a $30 million federal lawsuit against Elk River Police Department, Sherburne County, and Elk River School District to hold them accountable.
Kelsey has trouble sleeping still. “Every single day I worry about my other kids dying,” she said. Noah worries about being kidnapped and taken from her. Kelsey, too, worries every day about her children being taken away.
THEY PLANTED AN AUTUMN BLAZE MAPLE
For now, the urn with Autumn’s ashes is in her mother’s room with a photo of the little girl. Delylah has a teddy bear with a recording of Autumn’s voice and her laugh because her mom wants her to know her sister.
Kelsey and Justin got engaged last year, and still live in the area where Autumn lived and died. Kelsey home-schools Noah.
Kelsey is involved with Rivers of Hope, a domestic and family abuse prevention non-profit located in Monticello. She wishes she would have known about them earlier. They’ve advocated for her since Autumn’s death.
On Autumn’s ninth birthday, they planted an Autumn Blaze Maple tree in their front yard, so they can watch it grow.
On her 10th birthday, they gathered at the Elk River Boys and Girls Club where a memorial bench donated by the Elk River Lions was unveiled.
On April 28, 2022, Kelsey will be the keynote speaker at the Rivers of Hope annual gala.
Kelsey hopes that by telling her story, she can work to prevent this from happening to other families.
Mostly, she misses Autumn.
Read more in our Voices Against Violence series here.
• "I RAN'
• She must have done something wrong
• Assume mothers get custody of the kids in domestic abuse situations? Think again.
• "It should never have happened'
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