Child welfare agencies in Ohio have long sought to reunite children with their biological parents whenever possible. While 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.
A months-long investigation by this news organization found Ohio’s system often fails to protect children, with some suffering painful deaths just weeks or even days after being reunited with their birth parents.
Who is protecting our children? Since 2009, adults with a history of abuse have killed hundreds of Ohio kids
Below are the stories of 19 such children who died between 2009 and 2016.
Age 18 monthsAdams CountySept. 15, 2009
Lakaylee Chambers was killed by her father David Chambers, who had a history of violence. She'd been removed from her parents' care in 2008 by Adams County Children Services after a domestic violence complaint by her mother against her father. David Chambers was accused of dragging his wife down the stairs by her hair. But when that complaint was dropped, Lakaylee was returned to their care in November of 2008. David Chambers was still on probation for an aggravated assault conviction in 2006.
On Sept. 15, 2009, Lakaylee's mother wasn't home when the girl was rushed to Cincinnati Children's Hospital in full arrest. Her pupils were blown and her head was bruised. A scan showed she had bleeding in her brain. Her father first said she'd fallen down the steps, but later told investigators that he found at the bottom of the steps and got angry when he yelled at her and she wouldn’t get up. He shook her, according to the court record, striking her head on the tile floor three times. He was convicted of two counts of murder, sentenced to 15 years to life in prison, and is incarcerated at Richland Correctional Institution.
Age 2DaytonJune 9, 2009
Malechi Wilson died from blunt force trauma just two months after being returned to his mother's care. During an April 1, 2009, court hearing, Malechi's guardian ad litem recommended legal custody be granted to his mother, Denise Stinson. The court found that she had completed her case plan objectives and had appropriate housing and income to care for her child.
At the time, the 22-year-old mother had moved in with 44-year-old Mark Newberry. Both were accused of not getting Malechi medical care quickly enough, according to police and state records. They were initially arrested after his death on charges of child endangering. But a grand jury declined to indict.
Malechi's grandfather, Derrick Stinson, said Montgomery County Children Services did not do a thorough job of making sure the couple could care for him and didn't do enough to check up on the boy after reunification.
"My grandson was prematurely placed in custody with his mom," Stinson said. "She wasn't ready."
Age 16Cleveland HeightsDec. 19, 2010
Adonis Mays died at a Cuyahoga County hospital after his father, Christopher Mays, put him in a chokehold during an argument. Records indicate he was deprived of oxygen for a long time and aspirated food into his lungs.
Christopher Mays pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and endangering children and was given time served plus probation. Ohio Department of Job and Family services records indicate children's services workers investigated eight prior abuse or neglect reports involving Adonis and he'd previously been discharged from children's services custody.
Worth your support: Investigating child deaths
To get this story, reporter Katie Wedell spent several months requesting public records, analyzing data, digging through court dockets and interviewing families and child welfare officials. The stories of these children were pieced together from a state-provided database that didn’t include any names.
This kind of important investigative work takes countless hours and is made possible through the support of our subscribers.
Age 2Warrensville Heights, Cuyahoga CountyFeb. 17, 2010
Alexandria Hamilton was burned to death in a bathtub by her mother, Tyesha Hamilton, at an Econo Lodge in Cuyahoga County, where they were living along with Alexandria's three siblings. Her mother claimed she started to place the toddler in a bath and didn't realize it was too hot until the girl screamed and was immediately removed. State records show Alexandria was burned over 80 percent of her body, leading a hospital staffer to call the mother's story "bull crap."
Her death occurred less than a year after the four children were returned to their mother. The children had been removed from Tyesha Hamilton's care in 2007 and placed with foster parents Kathi and Ollie Coffey of Euclid.
"This is not a case where I would say we screwed up or failed to follow through," Cuyahoga County Children and Family Services Director Deborah Forkas told the Cleveland Plain Dealer after Alexandria's death. "We were very involved with this family for a long period of time and so were many other providers."
But the agency returned the children to Tyesha Hamilton's care over strong objections from the Coffeys. The couple felt she wasn't ready to take on four kids full-time, including Alexandria, who they had cared for her entire life. They didn't think she'd complied with the care plan and feared she would be overwhelmed. "I think the system failed," Ollie Coffey said. He thinks children's services just wanted to close the case and didn't do enough to track how the children were doing after they were reunited with their mother. Tyesha Hamilton was required to secure housing as part of her case plan. But 11 months later, the family was living at the Econo Lodge.
"She was just as pure as they can be," Ollie Coffey said of the baby he raised for 18 months. Tyesha Hamilton was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison for murder and is currently housed at the Dayton Correctional Institution.
Lawrence King III
Age 4ColumbusMarch 18, 2010
Lawrence King III was beaten to death by his stepfather John Reeves. He died less than an hour after being rushed, unresponsive, to a Franklin County hospital with bruising over much of his body.
According to state records, children's services had investigated three prior accusations of abuse or neglect involving the boy with one being substantiated. Lawrence had just been reunited with his mother three weeks prior to his death after being in the custody of his paternal grandmother.
The boy's mother, Nikki Reeves, told detectives that she couldn't stop her husband from abusing her son and instead went into another room and turned up music so the sound of the beating wouldn't wake the other children in the home, according to the Columbus Dispatch.
John Reeves pleaded guilty to aggravated murder and was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. He is incarcerated at the Mansfield Correctional Institution. Nikki Reeves pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and child endangering and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. She is incarcerated at the Ohio Reformatory for Women.
Age 3ColumbusMarch 11, 2010
David Boham died from ingesting methadone at his family home in Columbus. According to court records, his parents both had prior drug arrests, but they were not charged in connection to his death.
There had been four previous reports of abuse or neglect involving David, according to state records, and he'd been discharged from children services custody.
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Age 3CincinnatiDec. 28, 2010
Tyrese Short was beaten to death by his father, Christopher Dangerfield, about seven months after he got custody of the boy. Tyrese had been in the custody of Hamilton County Children Services from Sept. 3, 2009, to May 7, 2010, due to his mother's inability to care for him due to substance abuse and mental health issues. When Dangerfield was awarded custody, the county kept a protective order in place until August and then closed its case in October, according to state records. But a new case was opened for medical neglect on Nov. 23, 2010. Just over a month later, an unresponsive Tyrese was rushed to hospital with a head injury and bruising. Dangerfield pleaded guilty to aggravated murder and was sentenced to life with parole eligibility after 25 years.
Age 15 monthsSpringfield Twp., Hamilton CountySept. 7, 2010
Kayli Bates died of smothering at the hands of her father, Thomas Huge. He'd gotten custody in February of Kayli and her sister after their mother was incarcerated. Seven months later he called 911 saying she was vomiting, then called back and said she wasn't breathing. Medical staff at Cincinnati Children's Hospital noticed bruises on her body, including on her neck. Huge was found guilty of murder and sentenced to 23 years to life in prison.
Age 2Washington CountyOct. 18, 2010
Bianca Jackson perished in a fire in an unoccupied building adjacent to her family's home in Washington County in 2010. Her 4-year-old brother accidentally set the fire while they were playing in the building, which also housed illegal fireworks and had been stripped of insulation. The fire spread quickly but the boy was able to get out. Two adults were inside the main house and were not supervising the young children.
State records indicate there were six prior reports of abuse or neglect involving Bianca and three were substantiated. She was previously discharged from children services custody.
Bianca's father, James "Butch" Jackson II, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter along with misdemeanor and felony child endangering and sentenced to 30 months in prison. His girlfriend was also charged with child endangering and sentenced to six months in jail, but that conviction was overturned on appeal.
Age 2CincinnatiOct. 21, 2011
Damarcus Jackson was killed by his father, Antrone Smith, just a few months after being placed back into his parents' care. Jackson had a documented seizure disorder, and at first his father tried to blame that condition when the boy stopped breathing. But hospital staff documented numerous bruises, including contusions on his forehead and a burn on the top of his hand that was severe and had not been properly treated, according to children services intake records.
The foster parents that raised Damarcus from when he was eight days old to just before his death remembered his big smile the most. His foster father, Joseph Tye, said they objected to Damarcus being reunified with his parents after noticing bruising on him following a temporary visit with his birth parents.
The coroner ruled Damarcus died of blunt force trauma to his abdomen and his father confessed to punching him in the stomach. Smith was convicted of murder and felonious assault. He was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison. Damarcus' mother, Latricia Jackson, was convicted of child endangering. She was sentenced to two and a half years in prison.
Age 2LakewoodJan. 21, 2011
Anthony Dabila died from being choked and blunt force trauma to his head and body inflicted by a babysitter. Michael Burton lived across the hall from Dabila and his mother in Lakewood, Ohio, in Cuyahoga County.
His mother returned home from work on January 21, 2011, to find the boy unconscious and not breathing. He was rushed to a hospital but died 10 minutes after arrival.
Anthony had just been returned to his mother's custody in November of 2010, according to state records and a neglect case was still open with the county when he died. She previously lived in California and had two children removed from her custody there.
Burton was on probation for a weapons conviction when Anthony died. He was convicted of aggravated murder and sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 20 years. He is incarcerated at Marion Correctional Institution.
Age 2Cleveland HeightsJuly 3, 2014
Zaniyah Hollins died after falling out a of a window at her family's Cleveland Heights apartment in 2014.
Her mother's boyfriend was supposed to be watching her, but admitted he was in the other room.
Children's Services had handled four prior reports of abuse or neglect involving Zaniyah and the girl had at one point been discharged from children services custody.
The boyfriend, Teriall Mitchell, had a prior record. He'd been convicted of aggravated robbery in 2010 and sentenced to four years in prison. He was charged with reckless homicide in relation to Zaniyah's death. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three years in prison. He was also charged with an unrelated gross sexual imposition charge involving a young girl, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to six months in prison. He was released from prison in September and is on probation.
Charlotte Rae Rivers
Age 17 monthsNew ParisMarch 17, 2014
According to state records, there had been a previous substantiated report of abuse or neglect and an open children services case involving Charlotte Rae Rivers in 2014. She'd been discharged from county custody at some point before she died in her crib at her New Paris home. An autopsy was inconclusive as to cause of death and no charges were filed against her mother.
Age 2CincinnatiMarch 29, 2015
Glenara 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 has been delayed due to ongoing competency hearings.
Age 2Jefferson CountyJan. 28, 2015
Nicholas Wolfe was beaten to death by his mother, Channae Fleisher, in Mingo Junction in Jefferson County. He was the third child of Fleisher's to die. One child reportedly died of SIDS, another was killed by the father who was convicted.
Nicholas had been removed from Fleisher's care for two years and returned to her custody about two months before his death. Fleisher pleaded guilty to aggravated murder and child endangering and was sentenced to life in prison with parole possible after 20 years.
Age 3 monthsBellefontaineAug. 18, 2015
Brittany Pilkington of Bellefontaine stands 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. Her attorneys are currently contesting the admissibility of the nine-hour interview and she is awaiting trial.
Age 21 monthsPreble CountyDec. 14, 2015
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.
Avery "Averylee" Hobbs
Age 4CincinnatiAug. 1, 2016
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.
Her mother, Britney Mayes, said she put Averylee under the shower to cool her off becasue she complained of being hot when the girl suddenly went limp and she attempted CPR until paramedics arrived. But at the hospital, workers discovered bruising all over her abdomen, butt and legs, as well as blunt force head trauma. Averylee died three days later.
Mayes is awaiting trial for aggravated murder and other charges related to the death of her daughter.
Age 4ToledoNov. 22, 2016
Aaliyah Smith was beaten and starved to death while living with a couple who were not her legal guardians. The previous year, Aaliyah was placed with a relative, Shaqunia Williams, after Lucas County 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.
Aaliyah had multiple blunt force injuries and burn marks over a large surface area of her body, according to a coroner’s report. She was nearly 5 years old when she died, but weighed 30 pounds.
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.