This toddler should not have been in stepfather's care on night he died

Ethan Thompson, 22 months old, died on Nov. 16, 2016 died after being abused while in the care of his stepfather, Ethan Thompson.
Ethan Thompson, 22 months old, died on Nov. 16, 2016 died after being abused while in the care of his stepfather, Ethan Thompson.

When 22-month-old Ethan Thompson was abused for the final time by his stepfather, Montez McNeal, the toddler and his five brothers were not suppose to be at home with him. The six boys — between the ages of 6 months and 12 at the time — had been removed from their mother's home and placed in protective custody because of abuse in the home.

A protective order prohibited McNeal from having any contact with Ethan's mother or from being in the home. But the children had been returned to the home and on the night of Nov. 14, 2016, their mother went to work and left all six boys in McNeal's care.

On Wednesday, McNeal pleaded no contest to aggravated manslaughter of a child under the age of 18 and was sentenced to the maximum possible penalty, 30 years in prison. McNeal had initially been charged with second-degree murder and aggravated child abuse.

"Today we remember Ethan and his senseless death," Assistant State Attorney Suzanne O'Donnell said in a statement to the Bradenton Herald. "The sentence serves as a measure of justice for Ethan and his family."

Ethan's five brothers remain in protective custody with relatives. Their mother was never charged with aggravated child abuse despite allegations and evidence that she too had abused her sons and had failed to protect them from her husband. But she has lost her parental rights, according to the Safe Children's Coalition.

All child welfare investigations for the Florida Department of Children and Families in Manatee County are handled by the sheriff's office's Child Protective Specialist Unit. Cases are then handed off to the Sarasota YMCA's Safe Children’s Coalition for case management.

At about 11:40 p.m. Nov. 14, 2016, paramedics were called to the family's home in the 3300 block of Fourth Street East in Bradenton to a report of the boy being unresponsive. An off-duty Bradenton firefighter was performing CPR as the boy's mother arrived home in a panic.

Ethan was rushed to Manatee Memorial Hospital where he died just after midnight. An autopsy later revealed the toddler's injuries included a skull fracture at the crown of his head, seven broken ribs at various stages of healing, including fresh fractures, a ruptured kidney swollen three times it's normal size and bruises and a deep cut to his penis.

But McNeal denied ever hurting the boy, instead claiming that his injuries had occurred while rough playing and that he had hit his head in the tub.

Ethan's mother initially lied to the sheriff's office, claiming she had been home with the children and had gone to the door to get Ethan some medication because she said he had a cold and was running a fever. But she later admitted to detectives that she lied because she knew a court order prohibited McNeal from being in her home. She said she realized only after her son's death that she was putting her husband before her children.

On Nov. 1, DCF had received a report that McNeal was back in the home, but the sheriff's office reported they were unable to find any evidence of that.

Ethan and his five brothers had been back in their home for about two months at the time of his death. The decision was based on a verbal order from dependency court and a recommendation from the case manager, according to Safe Children's Coalition. But Circuit Judge Scott Brownell did not sign a court order until Nov. 14, 2016 — just hours before Ethan's death, according to the sheriff's office.

Abuse began in the home shortly after Ethan's mother married McNeal on Feb. 27, 2015. Less than two months after their courthouse wedding, Bradenton police responded to the home after she called 911 and hung up. When officers arrived, she told them that McNeal had punched her in the face during an argument. The State Attorney's Office, however, was later forced to drop the charges because she was unwilling to testify.

McNeal would punch the children, throughout the marriage, his wife later told detectives.

On the night of Nov. 13, 2016, she came home from work and was in bed with Ethan when she noticed his discomfort when she touched his back, but she did nothing. The following morning, she noticed Ethan's face was swollen and that he had teeth marks on his lower lip.

McNeal had slapped Ethan in the face just hours before his death. and had been upset because the toddler had diarrhea and was not potty-trained. That afternoon McNeal ordered Ethan's older siblings to take him outside for fresh air, and one of Ethan's brothers had to carry him.