Florida girl, 2, pays with her life for DCF’s inaction

Miami HeraldAugust 19, 2013 

Aliyah Marie Branum spent much of her two years alive either homeless, living in a tent or a shed — and being cursed at, neglected and beaten.

Aliyah was born with several disabilities, and her right eye was deformed and turning inward toward her brain — a condition her mother knew was serious but failed to treat. Her caregivers often didn’t bother to change her diapers, resulting in rashes and bleeding.

Through it all, Aliyah’s mother was witnessed, time and time again, spewing hateful profanities at her.

The toddler couldn’t defend herself or ask for help. She could not tell authorities who had left the bruises on her upper thigh this past January. And, when a team of child abuse experts asked her mother, Chelsea Maree Huggett — a woman with admitted severe anger issues — about the injury, she exploded: “Are you accusing me of abusing my child?”

In fact, though there was mounting evidence that Aliyah was in grave danger with a mother who’d already also been accused of smothering and striking her “really hard” in a public office, state child welfare authorities never considered Huggett an abuser.

That changed on April 26, when the child was pronounced dead from a vicious beating that, in many ways, seemed inevitable. In her death, the little girl with the wisps of blond hair and a penchant for looking pretty in pink joined a tragic cluster of children who had histories with the state child protection agency before they were killed.

At least 20 children have died since mid-April in a deadly summer of abuse and neglect for Florida’s children. The carnage cost then-DCF Secretary David Wilkins his job last month, and prompted a “town hall” meeting among lawmakers from three South Florida counties this coming Tuesday.

Aliyah’s last hours were particularly brutal: A “multitude of bruises, marks and other injuries” pocked the girl’s body, police said. Her face was puffy; her left eye swollen “completely shut.” Aliyah’s brain was bleeding, and blood oozed from her nose and both ears. Aliyah had injuries to her forehead, cheeks, lips, head, shoulders, pelvic area and back.

Cause of death: blunt force trauma. The alleged killer: Huggett, the mother who had her daughter’s name and birthday tattooed across her chest.

“This is a woman who could have cried out for help,” said Citrus County Sheriff Jeffrey Dawsy. “She could have cried out for help. There are enough social services out there. She brutally murdered her daughter.”

Huggett was charged was first-degree murder and aggravated child abuse, and is awaiting trial in jail.

She told police she threw the toddler against a wall for “whining.”

Records obtained by the Miami Herald under Florida’s public records law show Huggett had left a long trail of clues suggesting that a toxic mixture of post traumatic stress disorder — a vestige of her service in the military — a chemical imbalance that left her explosively angry, and her inability to cope with a needy and fussy child would likely combust into tragedy.

The clues, records show, all were overlooked.

Aliyah’s death shook the small Central Florida town of Hernando. An unidentified friend or family member created a page in memory of Aliyah on Facebook, and posts photos of the little girl almost weekly — along with heart-rending messages: “Thoughts are with you today sweet angel Aliyah,” from last week, or “God has you safe in His keeping…We have you forever in our hearts” from late July.

She first came to DCF’s attention in June 2012, when the agency “screened out” — deemed unworthy of any action — two calls to an abuse and neglect hotline suggesting the girl and her mother were living in a hot storage shed. Yet another report suggested the family was homeless. The calls did not warrant an investigation, the agency wrote, because being homeless or living in a shed is not connected to “child safety issues.”

Another report arrived on Aug. 10, 2012: Aliyah, it was said, appeared to be too skinny, and the family was still homeless. She was suffering from “horrible” diaper rash because her mom’s boyfriend, with whom the child was left sometimes, refused to change her diapers. The boyfriend cut himself with a box cutter and was threatening to kill Aliyah and her mom.

The report also noted: “When Aliyah was crying, the mother put a blanket over her mouth and she smacked her really hard on her legs. As a result, she sustained finger-shape welt marks.”

A review, still in progress, of Aliyah’s death says the state’s abuse hotline was told Huggett “had attempted to smother the child” while at a Veteran’s Administration office in Central Florida. There is no evidence that particular allegation was investigated at all, as no effort was made to interview any witnesses other than Huggett, who denied the claim.

The investigation, such as it was, did, however, turn up other disturbing tidbits: Huggett had told an investigator “she had been experiencing anger issues due to her daughter not listening.” She acknowledged repeatedly that she needed counseling.

DCF finished its investigation by finding no evidence Huggett had harmed her child. The agency offered the mom help, but did not insist she take it. Huggett did sign a “safety plan” promising to “refrain from excessive corporal punishment.”

Aliyah returned to DCF’s abuse hotline on Jan. 10. Aliyah, a caller said, was not receiving physical therapy for a genetic condition that affected her feet. She was also “dirty” and had a diaper rash that covered her pelvic region.

And then there was this allegation: “On. Jan. 8, 2013, Aliyah had a bruise on her lower back that resembled three fingers of a hand print” — an allegation that apparently was made by Aliyah’s grandmother. The report added: “Aliyah’s mom yells at her, telling her to shut up and be quiet.”

Investigators did not find any evidence of a beating. But a doctor with the Department of Health’s Child Protection Team, which specializes in detecting abuse, documented “linear” and “circular” bruises on Aliyah’s thigh, and concluded they were evidence of physical abuse.

In an interview with an investigator, Huggett said she suffered from a “chemical imbalance” and “gets severely angry.” She admitted she hit Aliyah as a form of discipline — which she had promised months earlier not to do. And if there was any doubt regarding the length of Huggett’s fuse, it ended when she “lashed out” at doctors who asked her how Aliyah had ended up with bruises.

Oddly, when an investigator closed her case on Feb. 12, she ruled the abuse allegation was “not substantiated.”

“There is no evidence of any physical or sexual abuse; no injuries, marks or bruises on the child,” the investigator wrote.

The agency did, nevertheless, extract another “safety plan” from Huggett and her boyfriend, in which the couple promised — in scrawled cursive — “no physical discipline.”

Like the earlier one, the safety plan afforded no safety at all.

On April 24, Huggett took her daughter to Citrus Memorial Hospital by ambulance to treat swelling in the girl’s hands. Aliyah showed no signs of a beating that day. But later that evening, Aliyah became lethargic. Huggett told friends she thought Aliyah had consumed ant and roach killer, and, on the advice of her mom, she called a poison control hotline. The hotline told her to rush Aliyah to the hospital. When Huggett failed to follow orders, the hotline called to ask why, police said. Huggett “told the hotline employee the victim was now fine.”

In truth, Aliyah was suffering from a life-threatening attack, and Huggett later admitted she refused to seek medical care because she knew she’d be arrested.

Huggett told police on May 2 that she had violently shaken her baby “at least two times” the week before because “she would not stop whining.”

Aliyah, a 2-year-old who could not speak words but seemed quite capable of vocalizing her discomfort in other ways, “would not shut the [hell] up,” Huggett told police.

So Huggett employed a number of strategies to quiet her child: She covered the little girl’s mouth with her hand “to muffle her cries.” She shook her relentlessly. At 4 a.m. on April 26, she slammed her baby’s head into a wall, and smashed Aliyah’s skull by head-butting her.

The May 26 attack finally quieted Huggett’s fussy baby. Aliyah lost consciousness when her skull was cracked.

She never reawakened.

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