It’s been two years since Ethan Okula died a wholly preventable death — since the 10-year-old foster child with thick glasses and special needs and a squinting, heartbreaking smile was sent home by his school officials. He was already in mortal peril from a serious stomach blockage. A caretaker who was not approved to look after him did nothing as he lay dying.
A little boy in the city’s charge, failed by nearly everyone assigned to protect him.
And now, finally, the city has decided that the death of the third grader at Julia De Burgos Elementary School merits a day in court. Now, an assistant district attorney will enter a courtroom and argue for the significance of Ethan Okula’s life.
Last month, without fanfare, involuntary-manslaughter charges were filed against his foster mother, Denise Alston, and her wife, Carol Fletcher. According to an initial city report on the death, Fletcher picked him up from school as he was dying from a stomach ailment he’d had since birth, and told school officials she was worried he would soil her car. She allegedly pulled the agonized boy up by his shirt when he couldn’t stand up from the pain and left him on the couch until it was too late. Alston, whose foster-mother licensing lapsed because she had fallen behind in training, had left the dying child with Fletcher, who was not authorized to care for him. By the time anyone called 911, Ethan was dead.
In life, Ethan was ignored. In death, he captured the attention of a city. The charges in his case come after the firing of the school nurse and four social workers who bungled his case. Readers responded. A cemetery owner paid for a headstone for Ethan, so he wouldn’t rest in a pauper’s grave. Strangers came by the dozen to the unveiling of his tombstone, which reads “God’s Special Child.” They left flowers and toys. Some visit still.
Ben Waxman, a spokesman for the district attorney, said he could not delve into the case because it is subject to a grand jury investigation. No one else has been charged, including the school nurse, who did not call 911 even as Ethan writhed in a wheelchair, and other school employees and social workers who let Ethan slip through the cracks.
“A 10-year-old boy lost his life because two adult women who were responsible for his care neglected him to such a degree that criminal charges were warranted,” Waxman said of the charges against Alston and Fletcher.
No one answered the door of Alston’s North Philadelphia home when I knocked Friday. She’s out on house arrest. Fletcher’s lawyer, Troy Crichton, said that the city was going after the wrong people. That Fletcher and Alston – two African American women – are shouldering the blame that should be foisted upon the social workers who did not do their jobs and the nurse who did not diagnose him.
In April, in Courtroom 306, that’s for a judge to decide. And indeed, in this case, criminally or not, everyone failed this child.
DHS Commissioner Cynthia Figueroa was the head of a North Philadelphia child welfare provider when news of the case crossed her desk in 2016. A few months later, Mayor Kenney would appoint her to run the department. She told me this week that when she read the early reports on Ethan’s death – rife with proof of social workers falsifying case records, the kind of misconduct the agency was supposed to have worked past – she felt called to step up, to do more. And now she’ll be held accountable for whether she does.
“There are no words to express how devastating his death was,” Figueroa said. She says the agency is working to put the lessons of his death into practice. It has increased training and compensation for foster parents and begun monthly meetings with parents and children to better respond to concerns – and strengthened communication with the School District. They are recruiting new parents – 300 more – and trimming caseloads for overworked social workers.
We’ve been here before. I have written about this cycle of a child’s death and the ensuing outrage, apology, and reform. Each case is depressing in its familiarity and unique in its horror.
When I think about Ethan, I think of something I read in his file that had nothing to do with his death. It was a story from a former foster placement. One day, his caretakers decided they’d had enough of him. They put him out on the step with all his belongings — his glasses, his hearing aids.
No one stood up for him then, and no one stood up for him a year later, when he was dying. Now someone is. Now his case will be heard. That means something, for all the children who come after him and who should benefit from the change that he inspired.
But that’s the heartbreaking irony of all of these reforms: They are built on the graves of children we failed.