Agency sued by family over boy's death

Relates to:
Date: 2002-09-25

The family of a Connecticut foster child who died at the hands of his prospective adoptive father has sued a family services agency in Clearwater, alleging that caseworkers failed to properly screen James Curtis before giving him a favorable recommendation.

The civil suit against Children Home Services of Florida comes more than a year after Curtis pleaded guilty to manslaughter charges in connection with the September 2000 death of Alex Boucher. Prosecutors said Curtis wrapped Alex, 3, so tightly in a blanket that the boy died of asphyxiation. Curtis, now 27, is serving a 14- year prison sentence.

The wrongful death lawsuit, filed late Monday in Pasco Circuit Court, faults caseworkers with Children Home Services for failing to conduct a complete criminal background check on Curtis. The suit, brought by an uncle of Alex on behalf of the boy's estate, seeks damages of at least $15,000.

CHS was asked to conduct the background check on Curtis by the Connecticut Department of Children and Families, which was trying to find a new home for Alex.

Alex, a ward of the state of Connecticut since days after his birth, had been living with relatives in Maine. But those relatives had difficulty caring for Alex, who suffered from numerous medical problems, including fetal alcohol syndrome, cerebral palsy, hemophilia and meningitis.

Curtis and his wife, Jennifer, knew Alex from their years living in Maine, and they expressed interest in adopting the boy. They began taking parenting classes at the CHS office in Clearwater.

In late August 2000, CHS caseworker Christine Poole sent a letter to Connecticut DCF. The letter said, in part, that the Curtises "indicate that they do not believe in physically disciplining a child under any circumstances."

"It is my feeling that they will make excellent adoptive parents for this or any other child placed in their home," Poole, who is named as a defendant in the lawsuit, wrote in the letter.

CHS, a private nonprofit with headquarters in Winter Park, also indicated that Curtis had no criminal record. The agency did not relate that Curtis was under investigation for brandishing a gun during an argument at his New Port Richey apartment - a matter of public record.

CHS did, however, report that James Curtis had been severely abused as a child and suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome. Poole, according to the lawsuit, related that Curtis was under the care of a psychiatrist and was "doing very well."

CHS also made it clear that the agency did not have authority to handle interstate adoption cases. The agency told Connecticut officials that the case was being transferred to Florida authorities.

Connecticut officials, relying on the information from CHS, allowed the Curtises to pick up Alex in Maine and bring him back to Florida. The Curtises were given temporary custody and the couple began the legal process of adopting Alex. A week after he arrived in New Port Richey, Alex was dead. Prosecutors said James Curtis, angry that Alex had soiled himself, wrapped the boy tightly in a blanket and left the room.

Officials with CHS did not return calls seeking comment Tuesday. Robert Rimmer, a Connecticut attorney representing Alex's estate, also did not return calls.

Days after Alex's death, a CHS official faulted Connecticut DCF for acting too hastily in placing the boy with the Curtises. Steven Insalaco, a program supervisor for CHS, said at the time that Connecticut should not have acted until all the necessary parenting classes, home inspections and reports were completed, a process that could have taken months.

"They knew better," Insalaco said at the time. "They knew they needed to wait."

Connecticut DCF officials later acknowledged that supervisors failed to ensure that Alex's case was handled properly and given the attention it deserved. The high-profile fallout over Alex's death led to a massive shakeup in the Connecticut child welfare system.

Alex's estate has yet to file suit against Connecticut DCF, according to records.

- Information from the Hartford Courant was used in this report.

-Cary Davis covers courts in west Pasco County. He can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6236, or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6236. His e-mail address is cbdavis@sptimes.com.

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Abstract (Document Summary)

The civil suit against Children Home Services of Florida comes more than a year after [James Curtis] pleaded guilty to manslaughter charges in connection with the September 2000 death of Alex Boucher. Prosecutors said Curtis wrapped Alex, 3, so tightly in a blanket that the boy died of asphyxiation. Curtis, now 27, is serving a 14- year prison sentence.

Connecticut officials, relying on the information from CHS, allowed the Curtises to pick up Alex in Maine and bring him back to Florida. The Curtises were given temporary custody and the couple began the legal process of adopting Alex. A week after he arrived in New Port Richey, Alex was dead. Prosecutors said James Curtis, angry that Alex had soiled himself, wrapped the boy tightly in a blanket and left the room.

Days after Alex's death, a CHS official faulted Connecticut DCF for acting too hastily in placing the boy with the Curtises. Steven Insalaco, a program supervisor for CHS, said at the time that Connecticut should not have acted until all the necessary parenting classes, home inspections and reports were completed, a process that could have taken months.

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