His name was Gabriel Eason. His story is achingly familiar. A young child dead at the hands of those who should have been caring for him in the District of Columbia. A family that was investigated by both police and child protective services, who were apparently unable to confirm the multiple incidences of past abuse. An agency more concerned about parents’ rights than children’s safety and hiding behind confidentiality laws to protect itself.
On October 9, 2019, an unnamed childcare center called the Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA) child abuse hotline to report that two-year-old Gabriel Easton had an unexplained injury, according an affidavit provided to DC Superior Court by the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) and summarized in a Washington Post article. On October 16, 2019 CFSA and Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) investigators went to the home of Ta’Jeanna Eason and Antonio Turner in Northeast Washington to initiate an investigation. By March 2020, detectives had determined that there was not enough evidence to prove or disprove the allegation of abuse and closed the case. Two weeks later, police called to the home found EMT’s unsuccessfully trying to revive two-year-old Gabriel.
An autopsy showed old and new injuries to Gabriel’s body, including swelling of the head and brain, abrasions and contusions to the head and torso; lacerations of the kidney and liver; injuries to the. heart and vena cava; cuts on the face and neck; blunt trauma to the genitals; and 36 rib fractures, six of which were healing and believed to have happened in an earlier incident. The medical examiner reported that Gabriel appeared to have been punched, kicked, slapped, or hit with an object on his right flank and punched or hit in the chest. She concluded that the main cause of death was significant head and abdominal trauma.
Both of Gabriel’s siblings had experienced physical trauma. The three-year-old was admitted to the Intensive Care Unit with life-threatening injuries including a fractured rib and a lacerated liver. There was evidence of old and new injuries. A child abuse pediatrician determined the injuries were due to blunt force trauma equivalent to being involved in a multiple-vehicle accident or falling from a twenty-story building. The liver lacerations were inflicted within two days of the child’s presentation at the hospital. The 11-year-old was found with a healing black eye and older injuries. Both surviving boys have been placed in foster care.
Gabriel’s older brother, age 11, told police that he was required to clean the house, do the laundry, and change his siblings’ diapers at night while the adults slept. If a diaper was wet in the morning he would be beaten. He disclosed that Turner had previously hit him in the eye, on the chest, and with a belt. He reported that his mother hit him with her hands, her fists, and a belt. The 11-year-old stated his mother did not recognize that “the marks and bruising rampage” started when Turner arrived, and that Turner would beat his younger brothers when his mother was not around or not in a position to hear the abuse. When she noticed the injuries, she blamed her oldest son instead.
Turner admitted to police he routinely used physical force to punish his partner’s children. He reported punching the 11-year-old in the face to “teach him a lesson.” He also admitted that he beat the boy up once, giving him a “teenager whooping.” He reported that he “went to his body, like my father did me” during that incident. Turner also said that he hit the 11-year-old in the head and kicked him in the body when he found the boys playing with one of his metal weights the day before Gabriel’s death.
Eason, the boys’ mother, repeatedly blamed the 11-year-old for the injuries to Gabriel, telling the police on the murder scene that he was evil. Eason later told police that she started to notice bruises on Gabriel after she met Turner, but later concluded they were inflicted by the 11-year-old. But the child abuse pediatrician who examined and treated the three-year-old stated that neither his injuries nor Gabriel’s could have been caused by a child weighing 80 pounds.
The police concluded that Eason and Turner “collectively and chronically inflicted injury upon the three children who lived with them, including two-year-old [Gabriel], who died at their hands. They did this this both by abusing the children and failing to obtain medical attention for the injuries.” Police charged both defendants with First Degree Cruelty to Children and Felony Murder.
There is a system to protect children like Gabriel and his brothers. It starts with the requirement that professionals who work with children report all suspected abuse to CFSA’s hotline. It appears that the staff of Gabriel’s day care center did not fulfill their mandatory reporting duties as established by District law, failing to report four suspicious injuries to Gabriel. On May 22, 2019, a teacher saw Gabriel with a black eye. When asked the cause of the injury, Eason told the teacher a brother hit him with a boxing glove. The same teacher found injuries on Gabriel’s back in June. The mother said she did not know what caused the marks. In August 2019, Gabriel showed up with another black eye. The center director told police she did not report the August incident because Eason had an explanation for the injury (Gabriel had fallen and hit his eye on a toy) and produced a doctor’s note indicating Gabriel had been cleared to return to day care. (Receiving medical clearance from a doctor to return to day care should not be a reason not to report suspected abuse.) A staff member saw bruises on Gabriel’s face and ears on October 7, 2019. Eason wrote and signed a note saying the injuries came from playing roughly with siblings. On October 9, Gabriel had bruises on his ears, which his mother could not explain. That is when the center finally called the CFSA hotline. It should not have taken five suspicious injuries before a report was made. It is not clear whether the staff were sufficiently trained in mandatory reporting, especially the principle that all suspected abuse must be reported.
Doctors are also mandatory reporters of child abuse and neglect. We know that Gabriel received a doctor’s note clearing him to return to school after his black eye in August, 2019. MPD found that Eason had taken Gabriel to Prince George’s County Hospital on August 30. He was diagnosed with a black eye and eye abrasions. According to notes from the medical record, Eason claimed she was on her computer while the “father” was watching the kids. At some point Gabriel was playing in the closet and Turner said he had to get Gabriel out because the doors were off the track. Gabriel fell asleep on the couch and woke up crying but Eason did not see an injury. Nevertheless, she gave him Benadryl because she thought he might be having an allergy attack. She claimed she did not see child abuse by the “father,” suggesting she was asked that question. She also declined a CT-scan because she did not want Gabriel sedated or exposed to radiation. Eason’s explanation of the injury seems incoherent and self-contradictory, and a mother’s response that she did not suspect abuse by her partner should be expected and not necessarily credited. Eason’s refusal of a CT scan might be unremarkable if the doctor did not recommend it–but we don’t have that information. If there were any concerns about Eason’s explanation or behavior, the hospital should have made a report to the CFSA hotline just to be safe, but we do not know if this happened.
The next known contact with medical personnel occurred on January 28, 2020, when Turner called 911 and Gabriel was taken to Children’s National Medical Center (CNMC) with a severe laceration to his forehead. Turner claimed Gabriel fell off the bed while the 11-year-old was watching him, at Turner’s request. Doctors diagnosed Gabriel with a “complex” seven-centimeter laceration with concern for facial nerve laceration, as well as a concussion. To a layperson like this author, such a laceration sounds quite unusual from falling off a bed unless Gabriel somehow fell onto a sharp object, which would raise serious concerns about the home’s safety. Moreover, Turner’s statement that he had asked an 11-year-old to “watch” a two-year-old should have been concerning. We do not know if the emergency room doctor had good reason to call the hotline or if in fact a call was made. We can only speculate about whether a call could have saved Gabriel.
MPD also has a role in protecting children, but its duty is primarily to investigate crimes, arrest offenders, and charge them in court. There is no point in charging people when the charges will not hold up in court. Therefore, it is not clear that MPD made any errors in investigating the October report from the day care center. It is understandable that MPD did not find evidence of abuse that could support a criminal charge. The injury that was actually investigated did not appear serious and did not require medical attention. Eason lied about her own use of corporal punishment and the 11-year-old, undoubtedly terrified to tell the truth, reported that his mother did not use physical discipline. More importantly, there is nothing about Turner in the summary of MPD’s first investigation; it is not clear whether whether MPD or the child care staff knew of Turner’s existence. Whether MPD should have uncovered his presence is a question we cannot answer at the moment.
The responsibility to assess the validity of an abuse allegation and ensure safety for the child is with CFSA, not MPD. Rather than investigating allegations to determine whether charges should be presented in court, CFSA decides whether or not to confirm, or “substantiate” allegations. Investigators must substantiate an allegation when it is “supported by credible evidence and is not against the weight of the evidence.” Therefore, CFSA may substantiate an abuse allegation when MPD does not find evidence to make criminal charges. The call from Gabriel’s childcare went to CFSA and it is not clear how MPD got involved. Perhaps CFSA asked MPD to accompany the investigator on the initial visit to the home, but we have no information what CFSA itself did. The only mention of CFSA action in the MPD complaint is that “On October 18, 2019, CFSA filed a report with MPD about the October 9, 2019 incident.” CFSA’s Communications Director told the Post she could not comment on CFSA’s interactions with the family, citing local and national confidentiality laws. So we don’t know if CFSA delegated the entire investigation to MPD, which would be unusual, or if CFSA conducted its own investigation. If CFSA did investigate, we do not know the quality, results, or findings of the investigation, or any further actions by the agency.
Not knowing these facts is unacceptable when a child is dead of abuse. The taxpayers pay the cost of maintaining an agency to investigate complaints of child maltreatment and make arrangements to ensure that the children are safe. We have a right to know if it did its job. If the problems are systemic, we need to fix them. If one or more individuals made errors, they need to be held accountable.
CFSA’s conduct in this case will be reviewed in by at least two bodies, but the results will not be available to the public. An internal CFSA fatality review committee will review the agency’s conduct to determine whether there were opportunities to save Gabriel. It will make a public report, but that report will not include details about the agency’s response to individual cases. The District’s Child Fatality Review Committee will review the case as well. I have served on this committee for over three years. Unfortunately, the committee will not have the opportunity to review Gabriel’s case until Eason and Turner have been sentenced or acquitted. When that day comes, we might have less than an hour to review the case, unless a longer time is allotted as it was on one occasion during my tenure when a high-profile case was being discussed. The document we read will not include the names of Gabriel and his family members, referring to him as “the decedent.” Undoubtedly, I’ll be able to identify Gabriel’s case from the description. But if I call him by his name instead of “the decedent,” as I have done in the past, I will be chastised and possibly punished for violating confidentiality. I will be able to read summaries of the family’s interaction with MPD, CFSA, and other agencies with which they had contact. Although I won’t see the full case files, I may get at least partial answers to my questions about how the case was handled. But I won’t be able to share what I learn with anybody outside the meeting even without including any names. If I do, I will be subject to a fine of up to $1,000. The panel may make recommendations, which will be shared in its annual report. But there will be no case study included in the report. Information about individual cases in these reports is statistical only.
This is not an acceptable state of affairs. As a first step, the law regarding the Child Fatality Review Committee should be changed to allow members to share information about how District agencies respond to reports of abuse and neglect. Secondly, the D.C. Council must require that all deaths from abuse or neglect, and all deaths of any child whose family has been the subject of an earlier child abuse report, be reviewed by experts. This review should be made public with names (such as those of the surviving brothers) redacted when necessary. This review could be done by a special multidisciplinary team staffed by the child welfare agency as in Washington State or by a neutral agency like Illinois’ Office of the Inspector General for DCFS or the Office of the Child Advocate in Rhode Island. I prefer the neutral agency so that the agency that failed the child is not involved in the review. That is why I support including child fatality review in the bailiwick of the proposed child protection ombudsperson under legislation that is currently being marked up.
In the absence of any information about CFSA’s response to the initial call from Gabriel’s child care center, we cannot know why Gabriel’s suffering was not discovered in time to save him. But I cannot help placing some responsibility on a mindset that values parents’ rights above child safety. This orientation is becoming even stronger, with a growing chorus of groups arguing that child welfare as we know it should be abolished. According to some of these organizations, like a new movement called upEND, removing a child from home is always traumatic and never recommended. (See my recent post for discussion of this movement.) I wonder what the folks at upEND would make of what the 11-year-old told the interviewers at the Child Advocacy Center after he was finally liberated from his hellish home. He told them that he felt safe in his foster home. In contrast, he said his own home felt like a “death trap.” Would they say he was traumatized by his removal and not by his home life? Would they say that Gabriel is better off dead than in foster care?
Gabriel’s case also supports the importance of childcare and school in protecting children. The police affidavit states that Gabriel and his three-year-old brother did not attend childcare for most of February and all of March. Ironically, this was not related to the closure of the childcare center in March due to the coronavirus pandemic. Instead, Turner told police that Eason was not able to get the children to the center because she was pregnant with his child–a baby that died shortly after birth. It is reasonable to wonder if Gabriel might have been saved had he been attending childcare in the days before his death. Perhaps another report would have been made and this time this house of horrors would have been seen for what it was. There has been much talk about how school closings due to Covid-19 mean that children are no longer seen by adults who might spot and report signs of abuse or neglect. While the pandemic did not apparently contribute to Gabriel’s death, the circumstances show the importance of of keeping childcare centers and schools open, especially for children at risk of maltreatment.
I searched the internet in vain for a photo of little Gabriel Eason. Perhaps nobody loved him enough to take a photo. There have been no vigils or demonstrations about his death. But for those who care about children, forgetting Gabriel is not possible. Let us remember him by holding accountable those who let him die, and learning why the system failed him so badly, so that such failure can be prevented in the future.