Miami-Dade County

Ethan Coley’s home was a chaotic mess when child welfare visited. Then came the real horror.

Ethan Coley
Ethan Coley

Ten days after Ethan Coley’s birth, on Dec. 27, 2016, child welfare caseworkers made an unannounced visit to his mother’s Florida City home. In oddly unclinical language, one wrote that she “almost passed out” when she observed what was going on.

Christina Hurt’s newborn was being hauled around “as if it were a doll” by his 7-year-old sibling.

Another child was jumping on a toilet seat. Still another deliberately sprayed a chemical in a sibling’s eye.

Hurt, whose five older children had been removed for neglect two years earlier only to be returned by a judge around the time of Ethan’s birth, “shrugged it off as if nothing happened,” the caseworker wrote. “Mom does not have control over the kids’ behavior and [the 7-year-old] is clearly caring for the baby.”

Fast forward 60 days. The Department of Children & Families, amid a separate child abuse investigation, issued a report on the family that included this notation: “At this time, there are no concerns as to the children’s safety in the care of the mother.”

Eleven months later, Ethan was dead. He was grievously scalded in a bathtub accident. Ethan suffered as his mom, fearful of losing her children again, opted not to seek medical care for her toddler. Eventually, she dropped Ethan off with a friend, in whose arms the baby died.

Christina Hurt was charged with manslaughter, later upgraded to second-degree murder.

The short life and agonizing death of Ethan Coley is described in records released last week by Our Kids, DCF’s private foster care and adoption provider in Miami. Those records and others released previously by the state chronicle the family’s long and tangled child welfare history and raise questions about the judgment and oversight of the court system and DCF.

A birthday cake for Ethan Coley’s birthday. It would be his last. Facebook

The child abuse hotline report generated by the boy’s death was the sixth relating to the family. One of those, in retrospect, appears to have been eerily prescient.

On July 13, 2014, Florida City police charged Hurt with failing to seek medical attention after her 3-year-old daughter suffered a cracked skull. Rather than consult a physician, Hurt covered a blood-oozing gash with a bow and dropped the youngster off at day care, where staff called police. Hurt would tell detectives she “did not take her child to the hospital, and admitted she should have.” The youngster said she injured her head when Hurt “pushed her off the bed.”

Child welfare authorities removed Hurt’s five children from her care as a result of that incident. Ethan was born on Dec. 17, 2016. Around that time, a Miami judge ordered that Hurt’s older children be returned in stages — over the objections of a child welfare worker who insisted that Hurt was not a fit mother, sources told the Miami Herald.

DCF has declined to discuss Ethan’s Jan. 18, 2018, death — other than to express its sorrow and indicate that a review is ongoing. The agency has cited the confidentiality of child abuse records.

“We are absolutely appalled by the alleged actions that led to the tragic loss of this child,” DCF Secretary Mike Carroll said. “My heart breaks for him as his last moments were spent in agony because of a failure to seek immediate medical attention. No child deserves to go through this. DCF is providing the child’s siblings a safe home and care as they grieve the loss of their brother.”

George Sheldon, a former DCF secretary who now oversees Our Kids, said records make clear that “this mom was unequipped to deal with some of the issues in her family.”

“As a result,” he added, “what happened in this case happened.”

A lawsuit filed by the Miami Herald seeking access to recordings of court hearings involving Hurt’s children — tapes that the court system has routinely released until now — also remains unresolved as a lawyer for the surviving children has appealed a Miami-Dade Circuit Court judge’s order to release them.

The four-page timeline of Ethan Coley’s short life released last week by Our Kids, together with heavily redacted DCF records released earlier, offer some insight.

Ethan was not the first Florida child to be born to parents already embroiled in the state’s child protection system. DCF adopted policies to protect kids like Ethan. The most important of these policies resulted from a lesson learned the hard way.

Diella Beth Ludwig lived all of 49 days before her drug-abusing, 24-year-old father, who had a long criminal history, crushed her skull to silence her crying. Diella’s mother was in prison. Authorities never really considered whether Diella and her twin would be safe with their father before releasing them to his custody.

The investigation of Diella’s death identified a litany of DCF missteps, including a failure to check into Thomas Ludwig’s background, meet him face-to-face or conduct a home visit before placing the twins in his care.

Diella’s death “underscores the necessity of pre-planning for children born into active cases, including the assessment of the home environment and implementation of services to provide the family and children with the tools and resources they need to reduce any existing risk,” the post-mortem concluded. “The needs of the children must … be of paramount concern to ensure factors increasing risk are ameliorated to the fullest extent possible.”

Thomas Ludwig is serving a life sentence for first-degree murder.

Thomas Ludwig Florida Department of Corrections

Since then, the state has required that a “Ludwig staffing” occur when a child is born into a family where older siblings have already been removed. A Ludwig staffing is a meeting of experts to decide on a course of action to protect the newborn.

Records obtained by the Herald make no mention of Ethan being the subject of such an inquiry.

Sheldon said Tuesday that his agency could not confirm that such a staffing took place. “We have identified a calendar invite to one,” he said, “but there is no record of it having occurred.”

Sheldon added: “This particular case explains why such an evaluation should take place.”

Failing to gauge the safety of an infant born to abusive or neglectful parents has led to many tragedies in Florida. A 2011 Miami Herald investigation into the deaths of about 500 Florida children whose families had a history of abuse or neglect revealed that about 20 children died after child welfare authorities allowed them to remain with parents who had lost custody of older siblings because of maltreatment.

A year-long Miami Herald investigation found that, in the last six years, 477 Florida children have died of abuse or neglect after their families had come to the attention of the Department of Children and Families.

On the day Ethan was born, weighing five pounds and eight ounces, he was one of two of Hurt’s children in a hospital. Some time that day, one of Ethan’s siblings reportedly smacked another sibling — after the child urinated on the floor — and the kids’ foster parent took the child to North Shore Hospital for evaluation.

Ten days later came the visit that so disturbed the caseworker. Notes from the visit depict the children running wild in a “chaotic” house, and a mother uninterested in supervising them, and unconcerned when they got hurt as a consequence.

Child Burned Florida
Christina Hurt Miami-Dade Corrections

“The oldest of the children … came rushing out of the bedroom carrying the baby,” the timeline quotes a report as saying. “[Redacted] and myself almost passed out, because the little [redacted] was carrying the baby unsafely, as if it was a doll.”

Hurt stood by in a hallway, the report said, and declared in a calm voice that it was the youngster who cared for the newborn. “You all see whose baby it is!” she said.

The caseworker was able to check two children for signs of abuse or neglect. Two others, she wrote, “literally ran from me, wet me with a water gun and [climbed] on the roof of a Saab car that was parked in the yard.”

Even as Our Kids caseworkers were visiting Hurt and her children, DCF was completing an investigation into a report that Ethan had a “deep scratch” on his nose. That report was ruled unfounded. But records from the investigation don’t appear to include any mention of what Our Kids caseworkers were seeing during the same time period.

Sheldon, the Our Kids chief, said he cannot explain why DCF and its private foster care agency failed to communicate with each other about the family. “I find it difficult to understand why that would be the case,” he said.

It’s unclear how often caseworkers were visiting Hurt as her children were being returned to her custody. The Our Kids timeline includes a notation from a home visit on Jan. 23, 2017, but the timeline is blank for nearly three months until April 13 of that year. The note says that the plan to reunify all of Hurt’s kids was “stopped” because, during an unannounced visit by a behavior analyst, Hurt “almost hit” one of her children.

The timeline noted a “major concern” that Hurt “has not gained insight” into her parenting obligations despite being under DCF supervision for about three years. The notation conceded that DCF and Our Kids were having difficulty helping the family, as caseworker turnover had led to long delays and services for the family had “taken forever to get started.”

The following June, DCF received another report. The Our Kids timeline says the hotline was told one of the children took medication that belonged to a sibling. The timeline also says one of the youngsters was bitten or scratched by a family dog named “Tank,” noting that one of the kids was “aggravating the dog.” DCF’s report on the incident is almost totally redacted. The timeline says DCF had insufficient evidence to sustain an allegation of improper supervision.

The home in Miami-Dade where Ethan suffered deadly burns.

“There are no concerns as to the safety of the children,” the timeline quotes notations as saying.

The final notation was dated Jan. 17 of this year. The note said a hearing was held on the question of whether Hurt was ready to be released from further oversight. “The mother was under the impression her case would be closed,” the timeline said, “but the mother had not completed all of the recommended case plan tasks.”

Her journey though the child welfare system was extended six months.

Ethan died the next day.