THREE-YEAR-OLD IN DCF CUSTODY KILLED; POTENTIAL ADOPTIVE FATHER CHARGED IN FLORIDA DEATH OF BOY

Relates to:
Date: 2000-09-30

Author: ELIZABETH HAMILTON; Courant Staff Writer

A St. Petersburg Times report is included in this story.

A 3-year-old boy in the custody of the state Department of Children and Families was killed by his prospective adoptive father in Florida as punishment for soiling himself, police said Friday.

James Curtis, 25, on Monday was watching the child, Alex Charles Boucher, at Curtis' Gulf Coast apartment when Alex soiled himself, authorities said.

Police said Curtis scolded the boy, grabbing his cheeks hard enough to leave bruises, and later wrapped Alex tightly in a blue cotton blanket and put him to bed unattended.

The blanket was wrapped ``in a manner to willfully torture the victim,'' according to the arrest warrant charging Curtis with first-degree felony murder Friday.

Cpl. Jackie Pehote of the police department in New Port Richey, Fla., said Curtis admitted to wrapping the blanket so tightly around the child's body that it pinned his arms to his sides. Curtis also said he placed the blanket just under Alex's bottom lip to keep him from crying, authorities said.

Curtis returned to the bedroom about 30 minutes later to free the child because his wife, Jennifer, was due home from the store, Pehote said, but Alex was unresponsive.

``He had turned over on his stomach and choked himself,'' Pehote said. Vomit was coming from the little boy's mouth.

Alex, who had cerebral palsy and other medical problems, was placed on life support at All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg and died Wednesday. An autopsy found the cause of death to be homicidal asphyxia.

Curtis, of 5529 Lasalle Court in New Port Richey, was arrested Friday afternoon and was being held at Westside Detention Center in Pasco County. He is scheduled to be arraigned today. DCF, which had assigned temporary custody of Alex to James and Jennifer Curtis for the September visit, had permanent custody of the child and had been trying to find him an adoptive home for most of his short life.

The custodial rights of Alex's parents had been terminated when Alex was only a few months old because they were unable to care for him, DCF spokesman Gary Kleeblatt said.

DCF initially placed Alex with relatives in Maine, thinking that they eventually would adopt him, but no one was able to adequately care for him because of his medical problems, Kleeblatt said.

Although both Maine and Connecticut authorities attempted to find Alex an adoptive home in those states, those efforts failed. Then the Curtises turned up.

The young couple were former Maine residents who had known Alex's relatives and occasionally had baby-sat for the child. Since moving to Florida, the couple had gone to a private child-placement agency in the hope of adopting. That's when they came to DCF's attention.

``We contacted that agency in Florida and found that the family had already started the process,'' Kleeblatt said. ``The agency said they had done a criminal record and child-protection check on the couple, and we received a letter from the agency saying this would be an appropriate placement.''

DCF did not conduct its own background checks, Kleeblatt said, but didn't simply turn Alex over to the Curtises, either. First the couple traveled to Maine in early September and spent time with the child during two weeks of supervised visitation sessions.

Child protection workers from Connecticut and Maine thought those visits went well, Kleeblatt said, and arrangements were made for Alex to spend extended time in Florida with the couple.

Alex, described by neighbors as a pudgy little boy with blond hair and a pug nose, had been living in the couple's apartment for only a week.

``We are all very saddened by this,'' DCF Deputy Thomas Gilman said. ``Our preliminary investigation indicates that the [DCF] worker spent a considerable amount of time with the youngster.''

State Child Advocate Jeanne Milstein, who was notified Friday about the death, said her office will be investigating. Milstein said she is going to recommend that the state Child Fatality Review Panel, of which she is chairwoman, also review the boy's death.

The federal government requires states to participate in interstate adoptions. All child protection agencies such as DCF must have someone on staff to assist that effort.

It was unclear Friday night how many Connecticut children in DCF's care are adopted by out-of-state families each year, or whether it is routine for the agency to send children out of state for visits with prospective adoptive parents.

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