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Mother of 12-year-old girl who died in DCF custody: ‘Nobody has given me an answer to anything’

Taisha Deris sat in her Fitchburg living room, discussing the death of her daughter, Syeisha Nicolas, who died while in DCF custody earlier this month.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

FITCHBURG — The mother whose 12-year-old daughter died earlier this month while in custody of the Department of Children and Families says she has received no information from the agency about the circumstances surrounding her child’s death and has not been able to view her body.

Taisha Deris said she is still searching for answers about the death of her daughter, Syeisha Nicolas, 12, who was found dead at a Fitchburg group home on Sept. 3.

Syeisha, according to her mother, had epilepsy and suffered multiple seizures a day. The girl had been taken to the hospital for a seizure the night before her death but was released after being observed for several hours, according to Fitchburg police and a medical record Deris shared with Globe.

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Deris said she was not informed that her daughter had been hospitalized until the next day, when she was told Syeisha had been found dead at the group home.

“Why wasn’t she kept in the hospital that night? How did she [leave] the hospital that night? Was she walking normal? Was somebody walking with her? Was she in a wheelchair?” Deris, 35, said in an interview at her Fitchburg apartment Tuesday. “When she went back to the group home, what was the precaution they took with her? Nobody has given me an answer to anything.”

Syeisha Nicolas, a 12-year-old girl who died in DCF custody on Sept. 3.Taisha Deris

DCF would not comment on the case, except to say that the agency’s practice is to contact biological parents as soon as possible after being notified of a medical event involving a child in state care.

The Worcester district attorney’s office is currently investigating the girl’s death. A spokeswoman for the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security said the cause and manner of her death remains pending, and would not provide any details on the whereabouts of the girl’s body.

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In a statement to the Globe, the Office of the Child Advocate declined to provide any information about the case, “other than to express our grief for the loss of the child.”

Deris said Syeisha and her younger sibling were put in foster care last November over allegations that Deris had neglected her daughter and that the children’s stepfather, Junior Deris, had sexually abused Syeisha.

Taisha Deris and Junior Deris both deny the allegations. Neither has been charged with any crimes related to the allegations.

“I don’t understand it. If something happened, it wasn’t at my house,” Junior Deris, 36, told the Globe in the interview Tuesday. “She’s my daughter. I have known her since she was 4 years old.”

Syeisha and her younger sibling were placed in separate foster homes, but after an outburst, Syeisha was moved to the Fitchburg group home, her mother said.

The group home is operated by LUK, Inc., a nonprofit agency that provides youth services throughout Central Massachusetts. Taisha Deris said her daughter would complain constantly about the group home during their weekly supervised visits. Syeisha allegedly told her mother that another child at the group home had touched her inappropriately. Someone at the facility had cut off Syeisha’s hair, her mother said.

Taisha Deris alleged she was never informed by DCF or the facility when her daughter was injured or sick. At their supervised visits, she alleged that her daughter had swollen feet or bumps on her head from slipping and falling during her seizures.

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“My child was screaming for help,” Taisha Deris said. “She was telling me, ‘Mommy, I don’t like this place.‘”

Beth Barto, CEO of LUK, Inc., declined to answer questions about Taisha Deris’s allegations of inappropriate touching and hair-cutting at the group home, citing HIPAA privacy protections.

Asked about the organization’s policy for notifying parents when their children are hospitalized or injured while in its care, Barto said in a statement, “the state procedure in a case such as this is to notify DCF in the event of any critical incident, and we followed that procedure.”

At 6:39 p.m. on Sept. 2, the night before Syeisha was found dead, a caller dialed 911 from the four-bedroom house at 101 South St. in Fitchburg owned by LUK, Inc., reporting a “female seizing, conscious and alert,” according to Fitchburg police records.

Syeisha was taken to UMass Memorial Health HealthAlliance-Clinton Hospital in Leominster, where she was observed in the emergency department for several hours, according to a medical record Taisha Deris shared with the Globe. The girl was discharged later that night with guidance that she take her medications as prescribed and return to the hospital “if she has a seizure lasting more than 5 minutes,” had two or more seizures in a row, or fell and hit her head.

At 7:36 a.m on Sept. 3, someone at the same South Street property called 911 and reported an unattended death, Fitchburg police records show. Fitchburg fire and emergency medical services were dispatched three minutes later, according to a prehospital care report obtained by the Globe.

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Police tried resuscitating Syeisha with CPR, the report said, but it was clear she was dead by the signs of rigor mortis in her arms and jaw.

Taisha Deris said she learned later that afternoon, around 2 or 3 p.m., that her daughter was dead. She said she was in church when she got the call.

“I blacked out completely,” she said. “My whole spirit left my body.”

Some of the allegations against Taisha Deris and her husband that resulted in her children being placed in foster care were detailed in a Aug. 30 letter from a DCF social worker that the couple shared with Globe. According to the letter, Syeisha recently reported that her stepfather had sexually abused her.

The letter said Syeisha’s recent allegation was “unsupported,” meaning DCF lacked reasonable cause to believe the child had been abused because it was “not a new disclosure.” The letter noted that Syeisha had made a previous allegation of sexual abuse against Junior Deris that “has already been supported,” indicating the agency had reason to believe her and intervene.

Junior Deris denies ever sexually abusing his stepdaughter.

The letter concluded that Syeisha and her younger sibling should “remain in DCF custody based on the historical concerns of neglect and sexual abuse.”

“It is extremely concerning,” the letter continued, “that despite Syeisha consistently reporting that stepfather sexually abused her, mother does not believe this to be true.”

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At her second-floor apartment in Fitchburg, less than a mile from the group home where her daughter died, Taisha Deris swiped through photos and videos from her last visit with Syeisha on Thursday, Sept. 1. The photos and videos she shared with the Globe showed Syeisha playing with her younger sibling at the DCF office in Leominster, laughing and dancing in a room full of toys.

Syeisha’s favorite color was purple, like the braids she wore in her hair. She wanted to be a pediatrician when she grew up, her mother said.

Taisha Deris believes she should have been notified as soon as her daughter was hospitalized. She said she would have demanded Syeisha stay overnight for observation.

“If they would have called me that night when she was in the hospital, I would have went to the hospital and I would have made sure they kept her,” she said, “but nobody called me.”

Now Taisha Deris is trying to plan her daughter’s funeral.

“The system has failed me,” she said. “It’s failed my daughter.”

John Ellement and Laura Crimaldi of the Globe contributed to this report.


Deanna Pan can be reached at deanna.pan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @DDpan.