Relates to:
Date: 2000-10-29

Author: ELIZABETH HAMILTON; Courant Staff Writer

The day starts lousy.

Alex, exactly four months from turning 4 and still struggling to use the toilet, messes his pants before anyone can rub the sleep from their eyes.

Then the old Caddy, a baby blue boat with a busted windshield, won't start. It just sits there in the driveway, grinding away while Jim, who's been out of work for months on disability and is late for a doctor's appointment, turns the key again and again and again.

And it's hot.

A liquid, full-throttled Southern heat, 89 degrees by noon with 90 percent humidity. The kind of heat that makes everything seem slippery, that frays the air at its edges and drives the dog indoors to lie, panting, on the cool kitchen floor.

The kind of heat that makes everyone a little bit irritable.

It is Sept. 25 in New Port Richey, Fla., and Alex, as toddlers are wont to do, is pushing Jim's buttons.

But Jim Curtis, 25, has never been particularly good at controlling his temper, according to the people who know him. He even looks a little intimidating, a pale, 220-pound man with a shaved head and a quiet demeanor that can easily be mistaken for moodiness.

By the time a neighbor gives them a jump and the little boy and his would-be adoptive dad make it to Home Depot, Jim is through being patient when Alex has another accident.

``What's wrong with you? You know how to use the toilet,'' he scolds, grabbing both of Alex's chubby cheeks in his hands and squeezing hard enough to leave deep bruises.

Back home in the two-bedroom apartment that Alex, a ward of the state of Connecticut, has shared with Jim and Jennifer Curtis for less than a week, his new mom attempts to defuse the tension by asking what Alex wants for dinner.

``A cheeseburger,'' he says. So she heads for the grocery store, leaving Alex and Jim on the bed watching the home video they'd taken of the child the day before.

When Jennifer Curtis returns with the hamburger meat 45 minutes later, Alex is, for all intents and purposes, dead.

Jim, who police say confessed five days later to wrapping Alex so tightly in a blue cotton blanket he couldn't free himself when he choked on his own vomit, meets his wife at the door with the words, ``Alex is not breathing.'' Jennifer, chatting on the phone with her mother in Maine as she walks up the sidewalk, immediately hangs up and dials 911 as she races into the bedroom.

Before the police dispatcher says, ``911. What's your emergency?'' Jennifer's voice can be heard on the tape screaming Alex's name over and over as she tries to revive him.

When medical crews arrive, they sweep Alex's bruised and blue body -- a tiny, 24-pound frame clad in a pull-up diaper -- from his spartan bed and into an ambulance.

No one notices the blue blanket.

Alex is declared brain dead and taken off life support less than 48 hours later. Jennifer Curtis sits by his hospital bed and says goodbye.

Jim stays in the hall.

DCF A Constant Presence

If you look past the woman herself -- sitting very still in the far corner, the dying floral arrangement in the middle of the table, and the empty liquor bottles lining the sill -- you can see through the window the gleaming glass walls of Connecticut's Department of Children and Families headquarters.

It looks massive from where Diane Boucher sits in her dingy Hartford apartment, a full nine floors below DCF's 11-story roof.

There is simply nowhere else for the eye to go.

Diane, 43, seems completely unfazed by the view, even though the actions of DCF have been a force in her life for years.

First, state social workers took her twins, Anthony and Andrew. They're 5 now and living in Maine with Diane's brother and his wife, who adopted them.

Then, nearly two years later, DCF took Alex.

State officials won't discuss why they took the child shortly after his birth on Jan. 25, 1997, or why a judge terminated parental rights, except to say Alex was unsafe with his birth parents.

Diane Boucher and John Karl, who named their third son Alex Charles Boucher, can't shed much light either.

A tall woman with bushy brown hair and bottle glasses, Diane, as they say in the psychiatric profession, presents poorly. On this particular day, a few weeks after her youngest son's death, she is wearing an ill-fitting dress covered in faded red swirls, teal knee-highs, and slippers. Her face seems to register only two expressions -- stupor tinged with resignation and stupor tinged with anger -- a function, most likely, of being heavily medicated.

She refuses to discuss her diagnosis of schizo-affective disorder -- a mix of schizophrenia and manic depression -- which causes her to have both psychotic episodes and severe mood swings. She is also an alcoholic who, according to her file in the probate court, was homeless for a spell in 1998 -- which is when a judge appointed an involuntary conservator to manage her finances and Diane moved into the locked, brick building where she now lives.

But she won't acknowledge that any of this guided DCF's actions.

``I have a broken back,'' she says, glaring. ``It was a total kidnap.''

John Karl, a 54-year-old Vietnam veteran and custodian for the U.S. Postal Service, also has a shaky grasp on the past, but is far more expressive about the loss of his sons.

``He was so beautiful,'' he said of Alex. ``I remember him from a visit at Peterson's Restaurant in West Hartford: Smiling in his high chair, such a boy, he has my heart. My mind goes back to that glorious winter day when he was born, snow everywhere, the angel crying, dawn getting me up for months, seeing him there, taking my heart on back to Maine. I miss him so much. He is in the season.''

Both parents blame DCF for their son's death -- not Jim Curtis, who was indicted on a first-degree murder charge Sept. 26 and remains in jail without bail.

Enduring Guilt

Alex was buried in Hartford, miles from the home in Maine where he lived most of his life.

The day of his funeral, the woman who raised Alex stood in front of his casket staring down in disbelief. This could not be the same child Michelle Harmon had handed over to Maine officials only a few weeks before.

Her Alex had silky white blond hair. This child's head was shaved bald. Her Alex had clear pink skin and toothy wee grin. This child's face was a pasty white, cut and badly bruised.

The blue eyes were now permanently shut. The ``killer giggle'' was silenced.

If only I had kept him, she thought.

Nothing in Michelle's 33 years has prepared her for this guilt.

She and Jim Boucher, another of Diane's brothers, became foster parents for Alex when he was 8 months old with the intention of eventually adopting him, but things didn't go as they'd planned.

Alex suffered from a mild case of cerebral palsy, von Willebrand's disease, and velocardiofacial syndrome -- a genetic disorder on the 22nd chromosome that causes learning disabilities, speech delays, mood swings and a variety of other problems.

Although beautiful and sweet, he also had some extreme behaviors for a child so young. He had a significant eating disorder -- Michelle says he could polish off a entire box of Cheerios in one sitting -- and frequently took the feces from his diaper and hid it around the house. He also required almost daily therapy, attended a special preschool and needed considerable supervision.

Michelle and Jim -- who have three young children of their own, the youngest of whom has Down syndrome -- live off Jim's modest income as a mechanic and felt like they were in a constant struggle with Connecticut DCF to get adequate resources for Alex.

A request last fall for in-home help to deal with Alex's behaviors was denied by DCF, Michelle says, against the recommendation of the family's own caseworkers in Maine.

``They fought me tooth and nail when I tried to get services for this kid,'' she says. ``They didn't want to pay for it.''

On June 29, Michelle and Jim called Alex's DCF worker and told her they would not be adopting him.

``I realized I was prejudging his life. I had started seeing the negative before I saw the little boy,'' Michelle says. ``I cuddled him and loved him and did my best, but I just didn't feel I could handle it anymore.''

It was Michelle Harmon who suggested Jim and Jennifer Curtis to DCF.

Michelle knew the family -- Jennifer Curtis' mother lives nearby, and the couple had lived in Maine before moving to Florida -- and she was aware they wanted to adopt. Once the suggestion was made, the process moved quickly.

The couple enrolled in parenting classes in Florida and traveled to Maine in early September to visit with Alex. It was during that visit that things began to unravel.

Michelle says now she should have taken more seriously something Alex said to her during that time.

She was emptying laundry from the dryer one afternoon and chatting with Alex about his visit when he suddenly announced, ``Jim punched me in the belly and Jen cried.'' Michelle says she thought he must have been exaggerating.

A day later, the couple lodged a child abuse complaint against Michelle, saying they saw her slap Alex and throw him on a bed because he sassed her -- a charge Michelle and her relatives say is flatly untrue.

Michelle, who now believes that Jim Curtis accused her because he was afraid Alex would tell someone about being punched, says she has since been cleared by Maine investigators. Maine officials did not return calls for comment.

Acting on orders from Connecticut, Maine workers immediately removed Alex from the home.

Within days, he was on his way to Florida with Jim and Jennifer Curtis.

Agency Admits Error

Five days after Alex died, DCF Commissioner Kristine Ragaglia called a hasty press conference.

Ragaglia, who has served as head of the $450 million agency since 1997, faced the television cameras and reporters looking drawn and tired. The press had been hammering the agency for days, her staff was grieving, and even Gov. John G. Rowland -- one of her staunchest allies -- was publicly denouncing DCF.

She looked down at her notes as she admitted DCF's fatal error in the case.

DCF, Ragaglia explained, had not waited for the Curtises to become licensed foster parents before sending Alex to Florida Sept. 20.

As a result, the couple was not thoroughly investigated by child protection workers and did not receive training that would have prepared them to be adoptive parents for a special needs child such as Alex.

As it turned out, Jim Curtis had a rather dubious background that included a recent eviction from an apartment for repeatedly fighting with other tenants and a first-degree misdemeanor charge for allegedly threatening a group of children under the age of 18 with a gun on June 26.

The glowing recommendation from the private Florida agency has turned out to be less than reliable, as well.

Although a foster care recruiter for the Children's Home Society wrote to Connecticut DCF workers on Aug. 28 saying the Curtises would make ``excellent adoptive parents for this or any other child placed in their home,'' others who have met the Curtises and visited their home are baffled about the recommendation.

Jackie Pehote, a corporal with the New Port Richey police department and the main investigating officer in Alex's death, says she wouldn't ``let a dog live in that apartment.''

Pehote says it was dirty and there was almost no furniture. No kitchen table for a family to sit around and eat meals together. No highchair for a small boy. Not even a couch.

Alex's bedroom consisted of a toddler bed pushed up against a wall, a cardboard box of clothes on the floor and a small plastic chair.

``There were no toys in his room except for one small stuffed animal on the bed and a ball that looked like it belonged to the dog,'' Pehote says.

The family was living on the $439 a month Jim Curtis was receiving in disabilities payments.

DCF officials would claim at the time of Ragaglia's press conference and in subsequent interviews that they had simply ``interpreted'' the regulations governing out-of-state adoptions under the interstate compact on the placement of children to allow Alex to ``visit'' Jim and Jennifer Curtis.

But according to the compact, the purpose of a visit is to provide children with a ``social or cultural experience of short duration, such as a stay in a camp or with a friend or relative who has not assumed legal responsibility for providing child care services.''

Alex's time in Florida fit none of these specifications. Instead, it was a pre-adoption placement, pure and simple.

Officials with the American Public Human Services Association, a nongovernmental agency that administers the interstate compact, say Connecticut officials must hold themselves accountable for violating the statute because no one else will. The association does not enforce the compact and neither does the federal government.

Although the case is being investigated by a slew of Connecticut officials, it's unclear what, if any, penalty will be brought against the agency if it is found to have erred in Alex's case -- an almost foregone conclusion, given Ragaglia's statements to date.

What might happen, some fear, is that DCF will punish the child's caseworkers and ignore the larger issues that drove them to make the hasty placement -- the driving push of the agency to remove children from abusive homes, often prematurely and at the expense of families.

Noble Goals, Tragic Flaws

Paul Chill, a professor at the University of Connecticut School of Law and head of a legal clinic that represents parents fighting DCF, says Alex's death can be viewed along a continuum that began five years ago with the death of a 9-month-old.

``The child protection system is out of control,'' Chill says. ``DCF is under a lot of pressure to move children into permanent homes much more quickly than it used to be.''

Emily Hernandez, whose family was well-known to DCF child protection workers, was raped and killed by her mother's boyfriend in March 1995. A month before she died, Emily was treated at a hospital for a broken leg and a social worker accepted the mother's explanation that the injury was accidental.

The child's death, and the political outrage it provoked, resulted in fundamental changes in the way DCF investigates child abuse cases.

As a result, the number of children placed in foster/relative care has tripled in the last decade, now hovering at about 5,000. At the same time, there has been a dramatic increase in the amount of money allocated to DCF for child protection services.

According to two recent state studies, spending on programs related to child protective services, such as foster care and investigating abuse, grew 344 percent from 1990 to 1998, while spending on other programs -- such as community child psychiatric services -- grew at a much slower rate (26 percent).

Further driving this push is the federal Adoption and Safe Families Act, a 1997 law that requires states to seek the termination of parental rights for every child in out-of-home care for 15 of the previous 22 months. The thinking behind this was simple: Family preservation policies of the past had forced generations of children to grow up in the limbo of foster care while their parents failed repeatedly to get them back.

States that don't comply with the law not only run the risk of losing their federal funding for adoption and foster care -- $108.8 million annually in Connecticut -- they also miss out on additional federal funds for children they place in adoptive homes. The federal government pays $4,000 to $6,000 for each child adopted over a certain base level.

Like the rest of the nation, Connecticut jumped on the ``child permanency'' bandwagon with both feet in fiscal 1998-99 and increased by more than $3 million the amount of money it spends on terminating parental rights.

It paid off. Adoptions climbed from a paltry 146 in 1997 to more than 600 this past fiscal year. DCF was awarded a $187,115 bonus last month from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as a result of its progress.

Although much of this has undoubtedly had a positive impact on children's lives, it also created the mindset that allowed DCF workers to send Alex Boucher to Florida at the first hint of an abuse allegation, critics say.

``They wanted to get rid of the problem and collect their $6,000 bounty,'' says Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, a nonprofit organization dedicating to improving the child protection system.

DCF officials don't deny that they have focused the agency's efforts on child protection or permanency -- protecting children should be their priority, they say -- but they say it is wrong to assume the state is making money on placing children in adoptive homes.

``We pay more money in one year for a subsidized adoption than we get in a one-time payment,'' says Deputy Commissioner Thomas Gilman, referring to the money the agency spends to support adoptive families -- about $8,000 a year per family.

When the agency fails in its mission to protect a child, as it did in Alex's case, Gilman says, it is not the fault of the entire system, but a result of a confluence of events and human error.

``No one feels worse about what happened to Alex than we do,'' he says. ``I think it's fair to hold the agency accountable, but there's something wrong when we can't see the nobility of the mission, the nobility of what we do every day.''


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