Christina Hurt and Taboris Coley believed they had gotten all the help they needed from child welfare workers and asked a Miami-Dade judge to release their family from state supervision.
The family’s caseworkers disagreed.
In about a week’s time, the social workers were proven tragically prophetic.
On Thursday, Hurt’s 1-year-old son, Ethan Coley, stopped breathing — the result, police say, of a severe scalding that Hurt deliberately left untreated. Hurt told authorities she was afraid the Department of Children & Families would remove the baby from her custody, along with her five older children, who had been returned to her only months earlier.
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Hurt, 35, was arrested late Thursday and charged with aggravated manslaughter. Coley, 30, did not live with the family and he was not charged by police.
DCF administrators declined to discuss the case Friday and also declined to quickly release an incident report that must be completed by the agency shortly after a child’s death.
The state’s child welfare agency took custody of Hurt and Coley’s five older children on Friday after Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge Jason Dimitris said he found probable cause to shelter the siblings, three girls and two boys.
Phillippa Hitchins, a DCF attorney, asked the judge to keep the children together and allow them to remain in South Miami-Dade so they are not disrupted at school. Hitchins also asked for grief counseling and continued psychological therapy for the children and that they have no contact with Hurt, who was booked into Miami-Dade’s Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center.
Coley was present for Friday’s shelter hearing at the Miami-Dade Juvenile Justice Center but declined to comment. He retained unsupervised visitation rights with his children, and he met with them in a private room at the courthouse following the hearing.
As DCF moved to take custody of the children, state officials expressed shock at Ethan’s death. Gov. Rick Scott called for greater accountability from all parents involved in Florida’s child welfare system, and urged the Legislature to toughen laws protecting children.
“We must demand that parents are truly involved in every step along the way and actively and immediately engaging in any services the court has mandated or DCF has recommended,” Scott said in a written statement. “If that’s not the case, they must be held accountable. I urge the Legislature to review current laws surrounding the child welfare system and work with DCF on recommendations on how we can continue to strengthen this process.”
DCF Secretary Mike Carroll said he was appalled by Hurt’s reported failure to seek medical attention for her injured son prior to his death.
“No child deserves to go through this,” Carroll said in a written statement.
DCF officials said they are investigating Ethan’s death and reviewing records of the agency’s prior involvement with the family. Once the review and death investigation are complete, DCF will post reports to the agency’s child fatality prevention website.
George Sheldon, who was DCF secretary from 2008 through 2011 and now heads Miami’s privately run foster care agency, called Our Kids, said he had been briefed on Ethan’s death but has yet to perform a detailed review of his agency’s records.
Records show Hurt was arrested by Miami-Dade police in July 2014 and charged with felony child neglect. She pleaded no contest to the charges and received two years’ probation but no conviction.
In late 2015 or early 2016, Ethan’s five older siblings were removed from Hurt and Coley; Sheldon said he does not yet know the details of the children’s entry into state care.
Ethan was born on Dec. 16, 2016, while the five older children still were in state care, Sheldon said. And although child welfare administrators believed the older children were not safe in the care of Hurt and Coley, they allowed the parents to take Ethan home.
In general, Sheldon said, “children that young are more vulnerable. We should pay greater attention to those children.”
When Sheldon was head of Illinois’ child welfare department, that state’s research showed that 80 to 85 percent of children with an abuse or neglect history who later died were 5 or younger, he said.
“I’ve seen too many cases where the older children are removed and the younger child is not,” Sheldon said. “If it’s not safe for older children to be in the home, then it’s not safe for a newborn.”
Around last spring, Ethan’s older siblings were returned to Hurt and Coley’s custody, though the family still was under the supervision of child welfare caseworkers, Sheldon said.
About a week ago, Hurt and Coley’s lawyers asked Dimitris — who had inherited the family’s court case from another judge — to end the state’s oversight of the family, Sheldon said.
Caseworkers with the Children’s Home Society, who were working with the family, objected to closing the court case. And Dimitris declined the family’s request, Sheldon said.
Sheldon, who took over Our Kids when he left Illinois last spring, said Our Kids administrators will undergo a thorough review of Ethan’s death apart from the investigations DCF will perform.
As state officials investigate Ethan’s death, a former friend of Hurt’s described how the boy from Homestead came to die in Goulds.
On the morning of Ethan’s death, Hurt dropped off her older children at school and then drove Ethan to the home of a former friend who had been the boy’s caretaker.
Ethan died in the woman’s arms.
Dixie Rogers said Friday that Hurt had called her on Wednesday night to say that Ethan had been burned. Rogers said she suggested that Hurt soothe the burn with aloe and figured the injury was not urgent.
But on Thursday morning, she said, Hurt showed up at Rogers’ home with the badly burned toddler, who was losing consciousness. Rogers said Hurt handed her the boy.
“He was like a dead corpse in my arms,” Rogers said, fighting back tears. “He was gasping for air. He took his last breath in my arms.”
Rogers said Ethan was burned from his chest to his knees, front and back. His testicles were gone, she said. The burned skin was peeling, and what remained was red with black spots, like a chemical burn, she said.
Rogers said she had cared for Ethan during the first seven months of his life while Hurt was separated from her children by the state’s child welfare agency. Rogers said she wailed and screamed when she saw the toddler had stopped breathing.
Neighbors heard the screaming and ran across the street to perform CPR on Ethan, who lay on a green medical mattress in the front yard, she said.
At some point, someone called the police. Rogers said Ethan’s body was not removed until just before dark.
Hurt told police on Thursday that Ethan’s burns had been the result of an accident. According to the incident report, Hurt said she had put Ethan in a highchair Wednesday night and then walked away to take out the trash. She returned to find her 10-year-old daughter holding Ethan, who was screaming, she told police.
“The defendant subsequently learned that while her 10-year-old daughter was attempting to bathe the victim, the defendant’s 4-year-old son made the bathwater extremely hot, causing the victim to sustain severe burns from his mid torso to the toes,” the officer wrote.
Hurt told police that she didn’t take Ethan to a hospital or to see a doctor because she was afraid of losing custody of her children.
Instead, she gave him Tylenol pain reliever and juice, though the boy threw up several times during the night, according to the police report.
Rogers said she does not believe Hurt’s claim that Ethan’s burn was an accident.
“She had no dadgum remorse,” Rogers said of Hurt. “She needs to be punished. All she needed to do was get help.”
Miami Herald staff writer Carli Teproff contributed to this report.