AUBURN — State child welfare officials visited the home of a foster child four days before the 2-year-old died and a 22-month-old was hospitalized, officials said Sunday, as investigators continued to search for clues in what they called a “very difficult” and “evolving” case.
It was unclear whether the visit by the Department of Children and Families was routine or what agency officials saw at the home last Wednesday. They did confirm that a third foster child who lives in the home, a 6-month-old girl, was also hospitalized “as a precaution only.”
“We stress we do not at this time know the cause of death or illness related to this incident and are working closely with medical personnel and law enforcement for answers,” said DCF spokeswoman Andrea Grossman.
Investigators are conducting toxicology and autopsy reports on the child who died, Worcester District Attorney Joseph D. Early Jr. said at a news conference Sunday evening. Investigators also checked the air quality of the home, he said.
“There’s a lot of questions,” said Early. “There’s a lot of work that has to be done.”
Meanwhile, the biological mother of the dead toddler, Jessica A. Conway, said in a phone interview that she had purchased gifts for her daughter, Avalena, whom she was scheduled to see Tuesday but, “now she’ll never get those gifts.”
Conway said she is numb with grief. “It’s hit me, but it hasn’t hit me. I’ll never see my precious baby for the rest of my life,” she said.
Conway said she struggled with drugs over the past seven years, but was two years sober when she had her daughter.
“That was my number one motivation to get clean; to get back, to get back to her,” she said. Conway is currently completing a live-in drug rehabilitation program.
She said DCF “makes it increasingly hard to work with families,” and called for change in the agency’s handling of children in foster homes. “Something needs to be done,” Conway said. “They need to do something about my daughter’s death.”
Conway raised concerns about the way DCF handled her case, but the agency could not immediately respond to her allegations.
Police received a 911 call at 12:23 p.m. Saturday from the foster mother, who lives at the home in Auburn with her three biological children and three foster children, Early said at the news conference.
When paramedics arrived at the house, they found the two toddler girls unresponsive. CPR was given to one girl, Early said, and life-saving measures were performed on both.
The children were transported to UMass Memorial Medical Center, where one girl was pronounced dead and the other remains in “very critical condition.”
No one has been taken into custody in connection with the incident, according to authorities. No signs of abuse were found on the other four children who live in the home, Early said, but he declined to comment on whether any such signs were found on the two girls. He also declined to comment on the conditions inside the house and would not categorize the nature of the case, saying the investigation is still “evolving.”
Child endangerment charges were filed to remove the remaining children from the home, and they are in DCF custody, Early said.
The foster mother, who Auburn Police Chief Andrew Sluckis Jr. said is “very familiar to police,” has been cooperating with the investigation, but he declined to elaborate.
Authorities towed the foster mother’s SUV from the house on Sunday, he said.
Conway wrote on Facebook Sunday that she wanted answers.
“My poor baby my [little] girl how [does] this happen? God why my [baby]????” Conway wrote on her Facebook page.
She posted photos of Avalena, who is seen in one photo dressed in a purple onesie with a headband topped with a pink flower. Conway wrote that she learned of her daughter’s death at 10:30 Saturday night.
David Coxon, 69, said he discovered that his granddaughter had died after DCF called him Saturday, asking for his daughter’s phone number.
A few minutes later, Conway called him and said Avalena was dead.
The girl, occasionally called Ava, had just turned 2 years old last Monday.
“Jessica is blaming herself. But we won’t let her; this was a system problem,” David Coxon said.
David and Diane Coxon of Marlborough, Conway’s parents, said Avalena was placed in foster care after Conway was sentenced to a year in prison. Conway, 27, had not seen Avalena since May.
Diane Coxon, 59, said she last saw Avalena in the fall of 2014. She said the family had no information about where the child was living after Conway was incarcerated.
“I would do anything in the world to have her back,” Coxon said. “You had to hear her hum herself to sleep. She was just so wonderful.”
Authorities would not confirm the name of the mother, the foster mother, or the child.
Grossman said Saturday that the agency was working with law enforcement and medical personnel to determine what happened. She said she had no information Sunday about what happened to the girls.
“The Department of Children and Families is devastated by the loss of a child, and the critical condition of another, who were cared for in a foster home,” Grossman said in a statement Sunday night.
According to the agency, six other foster children have lived in the home since it was licensed by the state last year. The foster home was not over capacity.
The foster mother volunteered for the DCF’s PACT, also known as Parents and Children Together Program, which supplies additional subsidies to foster and preadoptive parents who have children with special behavioral or medical needs, the agency confirmed Sunday. The woman performed data entry for a small stipend.
State Police detectives are investigating the incident, along with the Worcester District Attorney’s Office. A spokesman for State Police referred questions to the district attorney’s office.
In a statement issued Sunday by a spokeswoman, Governor Charlie Baker said he “is deeply saddened to learn of this tragic situation.”
The governor has been in “constant communication” with DCF and public safety officials about the ongoing investigation, spokeswoman Lizzy Guyton said in a statement.
On Sunday, neighbors and friends created a memorial with candles, teddy bears, and other toys.
“We felt like we had to,” said a Pheasant Court resident, who brought a candle and a toy puppy to the memorial and declined to be identified.
“It’s just what you do after a death, especially a death of a child,” she said.
Early Sunday afternoon, an Auburn police officer arrived with two bouquets of brightly colored flowers in a glass vase, which became the centerpiece of the memorial.
Lori Suprenant, who lives across the street from the home where the children were living, said at 1 p.m. Saturday, she heard emergency vehicles pull up to the house and she saw police and paramedics rush the children away.
Neighbors said the foster mother was hysterical, and one said police and EMTs tried to console her. “She was a great mother,” Suprenant said Sunday. “It’s mind-boggling. You try to think of what could’ve happened. And your mind kind of just runs.”
Relatives of the woman declined to comment at her sister’s home Sunday. A friend who declined to give her name described her as loyal and said she was a wonderful mother.
“You could always see the kids playing outside,” the woman said. “She comes from a background where family is everything to her.”
The friend said the woman became a foster parent nearly four years ago and had plans to adopt a relative’s child.
She said the woman came to her last week about a rash she found on one of the children.Jan Ransom can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @Jan_Ransom. Astead W. Herndon can be reached at email@example.com. Jennifer Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.