DHS took a 1-yr-old from mother but the girl was then kicked to death

By/
Steve Volk, Resolve Philly, for The Philadelphia Inquirer
Su'Layah Williams, 1, was allegedly kicked to death in a West Philadelphia home where the city's Department of Human Services had placed her.

Two recent cases involve claims that the city Department of Human Services failed to properly protect kids who’d been taken from their parents.

 

One afternoon last February, Su’Layah Williams, a 1-year old with short, braided hair and a mesmerizing smile, was playing on the carpet of a West Philadelphia home where the city’s Department of Human Services had placed her, when she was allegedly kicked so hard that she died from internal bleeding.

Su’Layah suffered her fatal injuries in the home of 23-year-old Danaejah Harper and her partner, Diamond Joyner, who, according to police, was the only adult there at the time. Joyner, 24, appeared Wednesday for a status hearing on first-degree murder charges before Common Pleas Court Judge Barbara A. McDermott, who said she will set a trial date next week.

After Su’Layah’s death a year ago, a lawyer for her estate sued NorthEast Treatment Centers (NET), one of the private agencies DHS contracts with to provide services to kids and families. NET recently settled the case of Hope Jones, a 3-year-old who was killed in a foster home, for $6.5 million.

Both cases involve claims of negligence for failing to properly protect kids who had been taken from their parents.

“The Su’Layah Williams case is completely horrifying,” said Zafran Law Group lawyer A.J. Thomson, who represents Su’Layah’s estate. According to DHS files, Su’Layah was moved to live with Harper, then a paternal aunt, and then back to Harper by a combination of DHS and NET services workers. “Nothing was done to reunite the girl with her mother, who’d never hurt her in the first place,” he said.

More than 1,000 pages of the girl’s DHS case file, reviewed by Resolve Philly and The Inquirer, show that Su’Layah’s mother, Tytianna Hawthorne, was investigated in the fall of 2021 after a child abuse hotline call alleged her daughter had suffered burns from the coals of a hookah pipe. A subsequent examination showed that the suspected wounds were caused not by burns, but were signs of the skin condition impetigo, which had faded. Hawthorne had been treating the condition with skin cream. Even so, DHS determined that the child was unsafe and placed her in Harper’s home.

The arrangement was made under what DHS refers to as a “voluntary placement agreement,” in which a DHS investigator informs a caregiver that the agency isn’t certain the child is currently safe at home. The investigator then gives the caregiver, usually a parent, an option: Place the child with an agency-approved friend or relative, or face a court-ordered removal.

These agreements are controversial: They can lead to parents getting their children back well before a court process that might yield the same result. However, parents can feel strong-armed into compliance by the threat of a court-ordered removal, calling the agreements anything but voluntary.

Hawthorne said in an Inquirer interview that she “felt coerced” into allowing her daughter to be placed with Harper, a woman she barely knew.

The 22-year-old mother also said that the girl was “always well taken care of.” Neither DHS or NET provided her any services to reunite with her child, she said, and she repeatedly asked the agency to place her daughter with someone other than Harper and Joyner.

DHS and NET subsequently moved the girl through two additional placements, landing her back with Harper, then closed the case without reuniting her with her mother. Less than three months later, she was killed.

‘Saddened by the tragic death’

“DHS is saddened by the tragic death of Su’Layah Williams,” the agency said in a statement. “DHS was not providing any services to Su’Layah at the time of her death. Due to pending litigation, as well as state laws which protect the confidentiality of case record information, DHS cannot answer any specific questions.”

A NET spokesperson responded in a statement: “We are deeply saddened by the tragic loss of this precious life. Our hearts go out to the family as they deal with their grief.”

In an interview, Joyner’s lawyer, Daniel John O’Riordan, said: “My client 100% maintains her innocence, and we’re in the middle of our investigation to determine the accurate time the injuries were inflicted and whether anyone else was in the home.”

At an October preliminary hearing, medical examiner Lindsay Simon said that Su’Layah had suffered “multiple blunt impact injuries” to her abdomen and abrasions and bruises to her forehead, lips, jaw, left eye, temples, back, legs and arms. Simon said the most forceful impact, to her stomach, likely from a kick, tore the 1-year-old’s pancreas and bruised other organs, causing fatal internal bleeding.

After the hearing ended, supporters of Joyner’s surrounded Hawthorne in the Criminal Justice Center hallway, threatened to hurt her, told her they knew where she caught the bus, and challenged her to fight.

With a reporter nearby and no court staff or law enforcement in sight, Hawthorne shouted back, “I’ll never have my little girl again!”

After the shouting intensified, courthouse sheriffs arrived, ushered Hawthorne to safety, and sent Joyner’s supporters out of the building. Neither Joyner or her supporters were present for Wednesday’s hearing.

 

This article was originally published on The Philadelphia Inquirer on February 14, 2024.