When the stresses of parenting five ungovernable youngsters became most acute, Christina Hurt reacted predictably, child welfare administrators say: She lashed out at her children. Sometimes violently.
Multiple members of the child protection system knew this in the winter of 2016 when a decision was to be made on whether to allow Hurt to regain custody of the five kids, or to get custody of her then-newborn son, Ethan Coley.
The system failed him, a report released Thursday says: the rookie therapist whose forceful insistence that Hurt's family be united at almost any cost seemed to bulldoze any doubters; abuse investigators who obsessed over one tree but missed the forest; and, perhaps most tragically, the Miami-Dade judge who ignored the concerns of the the professionals who warned prophetically against returning Hurt's children.
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Ethan died on Jan. 18. Though medical examiners haven't yet released a cause of death, it is believed his death was the result of a severe bathtub scalding for which Hurt failed to seek treatment. The day the 1-year-old died, Hurt drove past a hospital on her way to the older siblings' school. When a friend later asked her why she refused to get help for her suffering child, the report said, she replied: "They are going to take my kids."
And they did, later that day. For the third time. Hurt, 35, eventually was charged with second-degree murder, for which she now awaits trial.
"Given the mother's abusive history, the lack of forethought into Ethan's safety by all parties involved — including individuals from child protective investigations, case management, [children's legal services], and the judiciary — is highly disconcerting," a special report by the Department of Children & Families said.
In a prepared statement, DCF Secretary Mike Carroll said that, as a consequence of Ethan's death, his agency asked the Legislature to revise state laws meant to safeguard children who are born while their families already are under investigation or supervision by the state. "This new law will help the department prevent tragedies like Ethan’s death from happening in the future," Carroll said in a prepared statement.
"Ethan’s death is disturbing and we are deeply saddened by the loss of this young, defenseless child. Due to a failure to seek medical attention, Ethan suffered inconsolable pain. The person who was supposed to love and care for him, failed him," Carroll said.
Carroll placed much of the responsibility for the toddler's death on a system of care that was badly fragmented, and lacked adequate communication among professionals who operated in what the report called "silo fashion."
"Despite all of the the available information from multiple organizations within the system of care, Ethan’s siblings were still placed back into the home and he was never removed. This is completely unacceptable and had tragic consequences," Carroll said.
"I am profoundly disappointed in the lack of coordination and appropriate actions that should have been taken to protect the best interests of the children in this family. Despite the many services put into place to support this family, this mother clearly did not have the ability to safely care for all of her children."
George Sheldon, the head of Miami-Dade's privately run foster care and adoption agency, called Our Kids, said the report also underscores the need for administrators and court workers to better respect the judgment of caseworkers, who, as the front line in child welfare, often have the greatest understanding of a family's strengths and weaknesses. It was a caseworker with an Our Kids provider agency who had tried futilely to put the brakes on Hurt's reunification with her children.
"The message to all of us, really, is to listen to the case manager," Sheldon said. "It's a message to not just the agencies, but to the judiciary, as well."
Christina Hurt already had lost custody of her five children — twice — when she became pregnant with Ethan. The kids were removed first in July 2014, when her then-3-year-old daughter was diagnosed with a skull fracture and a gash on her scalp. Hurt took the girl to school with a bow on her head covering an oozing wound. The girl told authorities her mother pushed her off a bed when she wet the sheets. Her mother insisted the youngster fell.
The state received two additional allegations of maltreatment, in February and May of 2015, and both were ruled unfounded. Thursday's report suggests that one of those complaints involved an incident in which Hurt struck her daughter "in the face with a belt, hitting her with the buckle [and inflicting] multiple bruises to her face and eye."
Then, in late May of that year, a judge ordered that all five of Hurt's children be returned to her, despite a recommendation from DCF that they remain in state care, "due to Ms. Hurt's inability to safely care for and meet the needs of her children," the report says.
It appears the reunification did not begin until January 2017 — redactions make some of the report unclear — and, in the meantime, a new case manager raised new objections. "Ms. Hurt would essentially be set up for failure," the report says, "especially since she was unable to manage the children's challenging behaviors without significant supports in the home. In addition, she was expecting a baby [Ethan] to be born any day."
Ethan was born on Dec. 17, 2016, and, within a week of his birth, Hurt was allowed to spend the holidays unsupervised with her children. Two observers, a behavior therapist and the new case manager, came for an unannounced visit during that week — and the case manager was so appalled by what he saw that he called agency lawyers. The girl, whose skull had been cracked by Hurt in 2014 — now 7, and with her own history of abusing her younger siblings — was dragging Ethan around like a doll. The behavior therapist held Ethan for an hour "out of fear for his safety."
"The children's chaotic behavior continued to escalate to the point in which they were running in and out of the home, hitting one another, and jumping on the roof of a car that was parked in the back yard," the report said, adding that Hurt "did or said nothing" to stop or protect the children.
Inexplicably, the report said, an abuse report generated from the visit never addressed Hurt's inability to parent her children. Instead, it observed that, in a related incident, a mark on Ethan's nose was self-inflicted. "Despite all the documented concerns," Thursday's report said, "the focus of the investigation centered on the scratch to Ethan's nose."
Within months of the children's return, a therapist watched as Hurt did what she often did when overwhelmed by frustration. "Ms. Hurt was observed to almost hit [her] child," the report said.
By January 2017, Hurt believed she should be free of Florida's child welfare system, though she had "disengaged" with the family's therapist and had failed to complete some of the tasks a judge had required of her. A new judge had been assigned to the case, though, and he granted a request from a case management agency on Jan. 17 that Hurt remain under supervision for another six months. That night, half of Ethan's body was submerged in scalding water.
Looking back, the special report said, the decision to reunify Hurt with her five children — and give her custody of a sixth, Ethan — was a bad one. "In the past, in times of frustration, Ms. Hurt would resort to physical abuse in response to perceived problematic behaviors," the report said. "Moreover, Ms. Hurt continued to deny any responsibility in causing [her daughter's] skull fracture and repeatedly claimed the injury occurred when the child fell off the bed."
Ultimately, the decision to return Hurt's children to her in January 2017 belonged to Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Alan Fine, who, along with other decision-makers, is not named in the report. It is unclear whether it was Fine who also returned the kids two years earlier.
"On both occasions when reunification of the children was being considered [in May 2015 and January 2017], each of the assigned case managers expressed their concerns regarding the mother's ability to effectively manage the children's challenging behaviors and to safely provide for their care," the special review said. "In both cases, the court discounted and/or completely ignored the recommendation for continued out-of-home care."
The review included a transcripted portion of an audio recording of a hearing before Fine in February 2017. The transcript is completely redacted.
Shortly after Ethan died, the Miami Herald requested access to recordings of hearings in the case. For the first time in many years, Miami court administrators refused to provide them, citing a new interpretation of court rules. A judge ordered release of the recordings following a Herald lawsuit, but a court-appointed attorney for Ethan's siblings appealed, and that case remains pending before the Third District Court of Appeal.