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Report alleges abuse, neglect of Yarmouth toddler who died

After a lengthy investigation, the state’s child welfare agency has found that a Yarmouth toddler who died in February had been neglected and abused by his guardians, but prosecutors said the mistreatment was unrelated to the child’s death.

The state Department of Children & Families concluded that 23-month-old Lucas Braman and his 4-year-old sister, Layla, were subjected to neglect, physical abuse, and emotional maltreatment on numerous occasions by the couple caring for them, Elizabeth Cavallini and Sheryl Erb.

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The agency found evidence to support 14 allegations of mistreatment, seven for each child. The agency informed the children’s mother of their findings last week in a two-page letter, which the mother, Jennifer Cronin, provided to the Globe.

The letter did not describe the nature of the neglect or abuse or when it occurred. The agency declined to comment and said the report was confidential.

The Cape Cod Times first reported the state’s findings.

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Lucas, who was born addicted to opiates and had physical and emotional problems, was found unresponsive in his crib Feb. 13 in the couple’s Yarmouth home. Authorities say his death does not appear to be suspicious.

Layla was removed from the couple’s home after the boy’s death and remains in foster care.

Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael O’Keefe said Friday that the medical examiner’s office has found “no evidence of any trauma or obvious cause of death.” Investigators are awaiting results of toxicology tests.

O’Keefe said Cronin made the allegations against Cavallini and Erb, who is Cronin’s cousin. O’Keefe said his office will review the state report to determine if any criminal charges are warranted.

In a phone interview Friday, Cronin, 27, denied O’Keefe’s claim that she was the source of any of the allegations. She said the full DCF report will show that every one of the complaints originated with people mandated by law to report suspected child abuse. Cronin said she hoped O’Keefe took the abuse allegations seriously.

“It’s not just paperwork on a desk — it’s my son,” she said. “It’s my life.”

Cronin said she had grown increasingly concerned about the well-being of her children while they were in the couple’s care, particularly after Layla was treated for a fractured arm in January.

“Lucas was a kid who would run and laugh and giggle, and he had become withdrawn,” Cronin said. “I kept telling everyone, ‘Something is wrong.’”

Cronin said she went to court days before Lucas died to ask a judge to remove the children from the couple’s home, an effort that was unsuccessful.

Cronin said Erb was her best friend growing up, and that she was heartbroken by how they treated her children.

Through relatives, the couple declined to comment. But a relative denied they had ever mistreated Lucas or his sister.

“Elizabeth and Sheryl’s family stands behind and supports them 100 percent; we know these allegations are false,” Lindsay Laflamme, Cavallini’s sister, wrote in an e-mail. “I personally witnessed [on many occasions] how happy, loved, and well taken care of Layla and Lucas were during their time there.”

Laflamme also said that DCF made frequent visits to the home and “to our knowledge never had any issues with their environment or level of care during that time.”

In February, the couple told the Globe they had been working hard to help the boy overcome a range of emotional problems and that he had been doing well in recent months. They said they knew the children well and had helped care for them for years.

“This was always their home away from home, and they were happy and comfortable here,” Cavallini told the Globe in the February interview.

Last fall, the children were placed in foster homes after a domestic disturbance involving their parents. In November, a juvenile court judge granted Erb and Cavallini custody of the children over the objections of DCF officials.

The agency has declined to say why it opposed the move.

On Friday, a DCF spokeswoman declined to discuss the abuse allegations, but said the agency “is continuing to work closely with law enforcement.”

Jenna Russell can be reached at jrussell@globe.com. Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.
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