When two-year-old Damarcus Jackson was rushed to a Cincinnati hospital on Oct. 21, 2011, his father told hospital staff he may be suffering complications from a seizure disorder.
But by the time he died at 11:10 that evening, nurses were beginning to suspect something more sinister had occurred.
Damarcus had bruising all over his body in various stages of healing, according to a state child abuse intake report. He had contusions on his forehead, scratches on his buttocks and a nasty looking burn on his hand that had not been properly treated.
The following day, under questioning by police, 29-year-old Antrone Smith said simply, “I did it.”
Smith, Demarcus’s father, admitted to punching his son in the stomach — blows that resulted in the boy’s death from internal bleeding. He was convicted of murder and sentenced to 15 years to life in prison; Latricia Jackson — Damarcus’s mother — pleaded guilty to child endangering and served two and a half years in prison.
The couple had regained custody of Demarcus just two months prior to his death.
For most of his life, Demarcus was happy and healthy, according to the Hamilton County foster parents who cared for him until a magistrate placed him with his birth parents in August 2011. They say what they remember most about Demarcus was his near-constant wide smile.
Ohio has long sought to reunite children with their biological parents whenever possible. While child welfare officials say the safety of the child is always paramount, they also say they must act on known facts and not suspicion while following laws that protect parents’ rights.
But a months-long Dayton Daily News investigation found Ohio’s system often fails to protect children, some suffering painful deaths just weeks or even days after being reunited with their birth parents.
The investigation found Ohio fails to meet national standards on several key child safety measurements. And the state’s share of funding for county agencies — many struggling to keep up with a crush of cases resulting from the opioid epidemic — has consistently ranked dead last in the nation, according to the Public Children Services Association of Ohio.
Just 10 percent of children services funding came from the state in 2016, the group says. It also points out that only about half of Ohio counties have local levies to fund children services, putting the agencies in a further crunch.
“State funding has been virtually flat since 2010 even as the number of children in custody has increased,” the latest PCSAO annual report says. “No other state relies so heavily on local communities to shoulder the majority of children services costs.”
Critics say a poorly funded system has led to overworked caseworkers and disastrous consequences for many of the children in their care. In 39 counties — nearly half of the counties in Ohio — caseworkers in 2016 were carrying a caseload that exceeded the national standard, the PCSAO report says.
“Overloaded, underprepared caseworkers have no time to investigate any case properly,” said Richard Wexler, a child safety advocate and founder of the National Coalition For Child Protection Reform. “So they engage in ‘drive-by casework’ and wind up making terrible mistakes in all directions.”
Hundreds of deaths
To do this story, the Daily News analyzed a state-provided database of cases involving suspected abuse and neglect over nearly a decade and examined court documents, death certificates and other records to develop more information on as many child deaths as possible.
The result shows how often children die at the hands of adults whose histories were well known to agencies designated to protect the welfare of children.
In fact, more than half of the 474 Ohio children who died from suspected abuse or neglect between 2009 and 2016 had been on the radar of a local child protection agency prior to their deaths, according to the Daily News’ examination of state records.
In 85 cases, a children services agency had investigated multiple reports of abuse or neglect before the child’s death.
And in at least 19 cases, the child had been initially removed from the home because of an unsafe living situation and then returned — sometimes just days before their deaths.
• The mother of four-year-old Averylee Hobbs had previously been sent to prison for beating her as an infant, yet regained custody about a year before Averylee died in 2016 from blunt force head injuries suffered in the bathtub of her Cincinnati home. The mother, Britney Mayes, is awaiting trial for aggravated murder and other charges related to the death of her daughter. Her attorney, William Welsh, declined to comment for this story.
• Two-year-old Glenara Bates was already deceased when her mother brought her to Cincinnati Children’s Hospital in 2015 with bruising and bite marks all over her body and zero percent body fat. Just 15 months earlier, she had been thriving, according to a lawsuit filed by her grandmother, who said she began her descent after she was returned to the home of her biological parents, Glen Bates and Andrea Bradley. Bates was found guilty of murder and is on death row, while Bradley’s trial on charges of aggravated murder and endangering children is scheduled for December. Welsh also represents Bradley and said he would have no comment on her case.
• Sylas Warwick of West Alexandria had previously been under the care of Preble County Children Services, and then was discharged from the agency’s custody prior to his death at age 21 months in 2015. Beaten and malnourished, he died from blunt force trauma to the head. His mother, Christy Warwick, was sentenced to nine years in prison for involuntary manslaughter and child endangering and is incarcerated at the Ohio Reformatory for Women.
• The most publicized of the recent cases reviewed by the paper involved Brittany Pilkington of Bellefontaine, who is accused of killing three of her children: three-month-old Niall, four-year-old Gavin and three-month-old Noah. When Noah was born in May of 2015, his two siblings had already died under mysterious circumstances while home alone with their mother. Noah was immediately removed from the home, along with his sister, but a judge put them back after ruling there was no proof of wrongdoing in the first two deaths. Noah died six days later — of smothering, according to the coroner. In a taped confession played in court, Pilkington said she killed all three of her boys by smothering them with blankets. But her attorneys are contesting the admissibility of the taped interview, which ran for nine hours. They have declined numerous requests to speak about the case.
‘Parents have rights’
Children services leaders say there is no way to foresee every death, and that multiple steps are taken to ensure children are in a safe environment.
“The system will never be fail safe,” said Moira Weir, director of Hamilton County Job and Family Services. “Sometimes those in the child welfare system can make all the right decisions and take all the right precautions and a child may still die.”
Some argue, too, they are hamstrung legally by the reunification laws. If parents complete the case plan requirements spelled out in their criteria for regaining custody — such as going to rehab, attending anger management or parenting classes, and securing stable housing — the court or agency in charge of the child are legally bound to move toward reunification, they say.
“If we have documentation that the family has met the case plan requirements, then we kind of get to the place where we have no choice but to look at reunification, regardless of maybe what the gut might be saying,” said Jewell Good, assistant director of Children Services for Montgomery County. “Parents have rights… And to take away those rights is a very serious thing for us as a government to do. Obviously it’s not something that the public would want government doing unnecessarily.”
Child advocates also don’t solely determine placement. Anne O’Leary, Franklin County Children Services chief legal counsel, said it’s not uncommon for a judge to reunify a family after caseworkers have recommended against it.
That was the case with Averylee Hobbs, the four-year-old whose mother had previously gone to prison for beating her. Weir’s office recommended against reunification, she said, but the court ruled a different way.
“We only make recommendations, along with the biological parents, guardian ad litems, prosecutors, court-appointed special advocates, mental health professionals, foster parents, kin, attorneys and others,” Weir said. “The magistrate must take into consideration input from all of these parties.”
Montgomery County Judge Anthony Capizzi, who has worked in child welfare for 38 years and is president of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges Association, said the court must hear from all parties before determining what is in the best interest of the child.
“A judge should not be relying solely on their gut,” he said. “You take all the information together and you have to make a call.”
Critics say the tragic consequences of some of these decisions are the direct result of a flawed system that removes too many children from their parents’ care unnecessarily, overburdens caseworkers with too many families to monitor and rushes to reunify without proper investigations.
Wexler doesn’t accept that the system is legally bound to put kids back in dangerous situations.
“Confronted with a case file that has more red flags than a Soviet May Day Parade and asked, ‘how could this child have been left in that home to die?’ it’s a lot easier for the agency to say ‘the law made us do it’ than to say ‘we screwed up,’” he said.
‘She wasn’t ready’
If a child has been in the system for too long, a deadline mentality takes hold and reunification gets pushed in a rush to close the case, according to critics.
That’s what Derrick Stinson believes happened with his grandson, Malechi Wilson, who was two-years-old when he was returned to his mother in 2009. Two months later, he was taken to Dayton Children’s Hospital in full cardiac arrest with severe bruising to his abdomen, arms and back. He died from blunt force trauma.
“My grandson was prematurely placed in custody with his mom,” Stinson said. “She wasn’t ready.”
RELATED: Who will answer for Malechi’s death?
Stinson believes adequate precautions weren’t taken by Montgomery County Children Services to ensure that Malechi was in a safe environment. Denise Stinson and her boyfriend, Mark Newberry, were accused of not seeking medical attention for the child quickly, according to police and intake records. Although they were initially arrested on child endangering charges, a Montgomery County grand jury declined to indict either one.
During the investigation into Malechi’s death, Montgomery County officials refused to release details about why he was initially removed from his mother’s custody or why he was returned. An agency spokeswoman at the time said the final decision was up to the court.
The court order, in which a magistrate granted custody to Denise Stinson, shows the guardian ad litem on the case recommended reunification and notes that Stinson “substantially completed her case plan objectives.” The order did not specify if there was to be any ongoing supervision by the county.
‘I think the system failed’
Among the criteria for regaining custody is that parents provide a stable home environment for the child. But a Cuyahoga County case shows that doesn’t always happen.
Two-year-old Alexandria Hamilton died from severe burns over 80 percent of her body in 2010.
Her mother, Tyesha Hamilton, said she accidentally ran the girl’s bath water too hot. She was convicted of murder and is serving a 15 years to life sentence in the Dayton Correctional Institution.
Alexandria lived with foster parents Ollie and Kathi Coffey for more than a year and was placed with Hamilton 11 months before her death. At the time of the death, the family — including Alexandria and three other siblings — was living in a motel.
Ollie Coffee feels Cuyahoga County rushed to close the case and then didn’t do enough follow up after the reunification.
“I think the system failed,” he said.
The amount of time caseworkers are required to follow up with a family is court ordered and varies from case to case, various Children Services officials have said.
In Damarcus Jackson’s case, for example, the court ordered “protective supervision” by the county to continue for five months after reunification. His death two months later came within that five-month window. But some of the other deaths came after county agencies had closed the case and no longer had contact with the family.
In November 2016, four-year-old Aaliyah Smith was beaten and starved to death in Lucas County while living with a couple who were not her legal guardians.
The previous year, Aaliyah was placed with a relative, Shaqunia Williams, after the county had permanently removed the girl and her sister from their mother’s care. But in October of 2016, Williams left the girls to live with two people, Bridgette White and Tyrone Hooks, without notifying Children Services. Had the county known about it, such a transfer never would have been approved because the couple previously had at least one child removed from their custody, according to state records.
Lucas County officials say the case was closed after the court granted permanent custody to Williams, and they had no other involvement in the case.
“We had no contact at that point,” said Julie Malkin, director of communications for Lucas County Department of Jobs and Family Services. The agency is conducting a review of the case as is Juvenile Court, Malkin said.
White was sentenced to life in prison for murder, according to court documents, while Hooks received a three-year sentence for endangering children. Williams entered a plea to a misdemeanor charge of endangering children and was sentenced to 180 days in jail.
The opioid crisis is taxing local child protection agencies, officials say, and may be putting more children in jeopardy because of addiction issues involving their parents or legal guardians.
Nathan Wylie, 13, died in April 2017 from a drug overdose while living with his father, Robert Wylie, in a run-down camper in Dayton.
Penny Jo Bilbrey, Nathan’s aunt, says she can’t understand why her brother was allowed to maintain his parental rights despite a record of drug arrests, including one where Nathan was in the car with his father when he was arrested. On another occasion, drugs were found in the family’s home, according to a Dayton Police report.
Montgomery County Children Services officials confirmed they often have a hard time proving imminent danger when children are exposed to opioids, which is an increasing problem. Good said her agency handles at least one or two of these cases a week. But even when drug exposure is suspected, it’s not easy to prove, they say. Standard tests don’t always detect the presence of synthetic opioids such as fentanyl, now seen as the most common culprit in local overdoses.
Bilbrey said the priority should be with the children, particularly when heavy drug use is known to be in the home.
“They say reunification, reunification,” she said. “So instead these kids get to watch their parents OD… or their parents die?”
‘Foster care panic’
Some argue that too many children are being removed from their home environments, which they say has led to a shortage of foster homes and a lowering of standards for foster parents.
That’s one of the arguments from Wexler’s group, the National Coalition For Child Protection Reform, which maintains poverty is often mistaken for bad parenting. Following the 2006 death of Marcus Fiesel, an autistic three-year-old from Middletown, the group conducted a study of Ohio child protective services and specifically honed in on the system in Butler County, where a private agency that contracted with the state had placed Marcus with a foster family in Clermont County.
Just a few months after that placement, a grisly saga unfolded.
Marcus was bound and locked in a steaming hot closet for more than two days while his foster parents, David and Liz Carroll, went to a family reunion in Kentucky. When they returned to find him dead, David Carroll drove the body to a remote area and burned it in a chimney. The couple then reported that he’d gone missing at a public park, causing a wide manhunt and national publicity.
Liz Carroll was sentenced to 54 years in prison, and David Carroll received 15 years to life.
The Fiesel case brought attention and condemnation to the system Ohio has for protecting children. But it’s not clear how much has improved.
In 2015, the most recent year for which the state has data, Ohio failed to meet multiple benchmarks used nationally to assess state performance on child safety standards.
For example, 9.69 percent of children who were victims of abuse or neglect were revictimized within a year, according to data provided by the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services. The national standard is 9.1 percent or less.
The state saw 13.74 percent of the children who were discharged from foster care re-enter it again within a year. The national standard is 8.3 percent or less.
And the state also exceeded the national standard for the rate of children victimized while in foster care.
In other words, the data shows there are problems at virtually every step of the process, from foster care to reunification.
“Look closely at these cases and the explanation is almost always the same — an under-prepared, under-trained, and desperately overwhelmed caseworker lacked the knowledge, and most of all, the time to do a thorough investigation and make the right decision,” the Butler County report says.
Child deaths often lead to a renewed push by communities to remove children from unstable home environments, Wexler said — a practice he calls “foster care panic” — but he argues that isn’t always in the best interest of those children.
Bad decisions happen in both directions, according to Wexler: leaving kids in dangerous homes and removing kids that could easily be made safe with the right kind of family service intervention.
“The more that workers are overwhelmed with children who don’t need to be in foster care, the less time they have to find children in real danger,” his group’s report says.
Ohio is facing an immense shortage of foster care families, according to Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, who called attention to the problem in August.
The state has about 15,000 children in the custody of children services agencies, up about 3,000 from seven years ago. The number of foster families licensed with the state is about 7,200.
Not only are more children getting placed in foster care, officials say, but the addiction crisis is keeping them there longer.
Drug issues accounted for nearly half the removals of children from homes in Ohio last year.
‘My wife still talks about him’
In the six years since Damarcus Jackson’s death, Joseph and Latasha Tye have continued to care for foster children, and even recently adopted three children as permanent members of their family. But they are still angry about the loss of the foster son they loved.
They are angry because they say it could have been prevented.
“My wife still talks about him,” Joseph says.
The Tyes were Demarcus’s foster parents from the time he was eight days old until he was reunited with his birth parents two months prior to his death.
They say there were signs of abuse even then, including bruises following a temporary stay with his birth parents.
DeWine found the details of Demarcus’s death so disturbing — another child murdered after being placed with parents who have a history of abuse — he launched an exhaustive overhaul of Ohio’s child welfare system.
“While reunification is the goal and we should try to reunite families, the safety of the child is more important than putting that family back together again,” DeWine said following the boy’s death. “The safety of the child is always paramount.”
After Demarcus’s death, DeWine personally called the Tyes to express his condolences. He held town hall meetings throughout Ohio, hoping to draw attention to the welfare of the state’s children.
But while a bill that grew out of those meetings became law in 2014 and resulted in some minor reforms, he admits the effort fell far short of its goal.
“One of the things that we’re going to have to do is that (funding) number is going to have to get raised,” said DeWine, who is now running for governor of Ohio.
DeWine said the state needs “to take a hard look at the foster care system,” and examine the impact the opioid crisis is having on children, some of whom get sent outside their home county if there are no places to put them.
However, Wexler said it will take more than money to ensure the system is as good as it can be.
“If you only hire more workers without changing the fundamental approach of the agency, all you’ll get is the same lousy system only bigger,” he said.
Joseph Tye doesn’t hold out much hope that things will get better.
Of past efforts to reform the system, he said, “It hasn’t changed nothing.”