Two women who allegedly didn't seek medical attention for a 10-year-old boy after he was sent home from school with severe pain until he had stopped breathing are now facing criminal charges.
Denise Alston, 55, and her wife Carol Fletcher, 53, were charged on Feb. 1 with involuntary manslaughter, conspiracy and endangering the welfare of children related to the death of Ethan Okula.
Ethan died on Feb. 10, 2016 in their home after being sent home from Julia De Burgos Elementary in North Philly with severe stomach pain. Ethan had a gastric condition, and his death was caused by intestinal blockage.
According to the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services' (DHS) Act 33 investigation into Ethan's death, after he fell ill at school, vomiting and defecating, the school called his foster mother, Alston, around 9:38 a.m. telling them he needed to be picked up.
Alston reportedly told the school she was busy at work, and instead that her wife, Fletcher, would pick Ethan up. Fletcher arrived between noon and 1 p.m., the state's Act 33 team, which investigates the death of all children in state custody, reported.
"The perpetrator asserted that the child's current behavior and claim of stomach and abdominal pain was an habitual occurrence which did not warrant medical attention and that the child would be taken home and sent to his room," the state's report said. "The alleged perpetrator used profanity when stating that she did not want the child, who had reportedly had a bowel accident, to be in her car. School personnel provided her with a trash bag to put on the seat of her car."
Once brought home, Ethan was reportedly left on a couch, where around 7 p.m. Alston and Fletcher noticed he was not breathing and called 911. Ethan "was revived briefly at the hospital, but was later pronounced dead," the state report said. Another foster child at their home was later removed.
Fletcher's defense lawyer, Troy Crichton, called the prosecution a "witch hunt" and said the women are being "scapegoated" despite the fact that child welfare agencies never told the women Ethan had a stomach condition.
"The government is on a witch hunt to pin this on somebody, when it's the government that failed Ethan, not Ms. Fletcher," Crichton said. "The foster mom, Denise Alton, didn't even know this kid had any condition, because DHS failed to tell her, and then falsified reports to cover it up."
State investigators found that, in addition to the foster parents reportedly not fully understanding Ethan's gastric condition that caused his death, that the school nurse, who was later fired, should have noted abdominal scarring and called 911.
Four Philly DHS social workers involved in Ethan's case reportedly lost their jobs, out of 13 let go in 2016 due to alleged connections to document falsification, the Inquirer reported. One Northeast Treatment Services (NET) employee also reportedly falsified paperwork claiming they met with his caseworkers.
Attorney Nadeem Bezar has filed a lawsuit against NET, claiming they and DHS placed Ethan with a foster mother without properly making her aware of his medical issues.
"I can tell you we firmly believe that the agencies are responsible for Ethan's death," Bezar said. "In terms of how this led to Ethan's demise, we'll let the DA's office make the determination."
Ethan's death prompted a wave of reform at Philly DHS. The agency said it has increased compensation for foster parents, now holds monthly meetings with resource parents, providers, and older youth "to support excellent parenting in foster care," communications more with the School District, is recruiting new foster parents and has decreased social worker caseloads to a current average of about 11 cases per social worker.
Before being placed in the foster home where he died, Ethan reportedly suffered years of abuse with other foster families, including at one point being locked outside a home with all his possessions by a previous set of foster parents.
He was removed from the home of his biological parents around the age of 1 due to both having drug problems, and his father being abusive.
Bezar is representing Ethan’s grandparents, who were denied custody of Ethan because the grandmother uses a wheelchair and the grandfather works at night. His brother, also in foster care, would be the beneficiary of any lawsuit.
Alston and Fletcher's preliminary hearing on involuntary manslaughter charges is scheduled for April 4.