AUBURN — A toddler who is in dire condition after being taken from an Auburn foster home last weekend was found with skin that was hot to the touch and an elevated temperature as well as bruising that may be consistent with a seat belt harness, according to two people familiar with the case.
The symptoms suggest the 22-month-old foster child may have had hyperthermia, the medical term for being greatly overheated, the people said. Authorities have not said how the child may have become overheated, or identified the cause of death of a 2-year-old foster child who was also found unresponsive in the home Saturday.
Temperatures in the area were in the 80s at the time. Authorities towed away the foster mother's SUV on Sunday, but have not divulged why. They executed their third search of the house on Wednesday.
No charges have been filed, and the case remains under investigation by Auburn and State Police, and by the state Department of Children and Families.
The sister of the foster mother strongly defended her sibling on Wednesday, saying the mother treated her children "with the highest level of care, love, and kindness."
"We can say with complete certainty the cause investigators will find will be nothing more than a complete freak accident," the sister told WCVB-TV. "We are confident there is zero chance anything with intent or malice occurred."
She said her sister has not spoken about the tragedy "due to her complete and utter devastation."
"So quickly she went from a house filled with joy, laughter, happiness, and children one day to a state of sheer shock and destruction the next," the sister told WCVB.
In addition to the 2-year-old and 22-month-old, the mother also had a 6-month-old foster child and three children of her own — two biological children ages 15 and 11, and a 9-year-old girl she had adopted. The children have all been taken into state custody and are well, officials said.
A state social worker visited the home last Wednesday, three days before the 2-year-old died and the 22-month-old was taken away in critical condition, but noticed nothing unusual, said one person with knowledge of the case.
The foster mother welcomed the children into her family and "raised them as her own," said her sister.
She became a foster mother early last year and "took in these beautiful children under her wing to care for them while their parents did what it would take to be reunited," the woman's sister said. "She wanted to help them grow, learn, and live a happy life."
Last week, the foster mother held a second birthday party for Avalena, the little girl who died, the sister said. "All of our family attended and showered her with gifts and love, as we do every child in this family," she said. "Now, this little angel is celebrating with Jesus."
A handful of unmarked cruisers arrived at the foster home on Wednesday morning, and plainclothes officers spent about an hour inside, accompanied by a crime scene technician with a camera. Police were seen leaving the home with two bulging brown paper evidence bags.
As they continue their search for answers, officials have disclosed that the mother's boyfriend was not registered with the DCF as a person having interaction with the family. Under state rules, foster parents must notify the department if anyone older than 15 is living in, or spending significant time in, their home.
Florida court records obtained Wednesday indicate that the boyfriend, who is 33, pled guilty in 2005 to grand theft and to animal cruelty, both felonies.
A police report from his arrest on the animal cruelty charge indicates that he used a knife to cut the nose and throat of his roommate's dog and then told his roommate to get him crack cocaine.
The roommate told police that the man "has a crack problem" and "also has a problem with anger and violence and was recently arrested for fighting," according to the report.
In March, the boyfriend was arrested in Worcester after he and another woman allegedly pried $24 from a person's hand. That case is pending in Worcester District Court.
Officials said it is not clear how much time the boyfriend spent with the children. Five neighbors interviewed Monday said they did not believe he lived there; one said he would spend time with the mother when the children went to day care. One neighbor said Wednesday that she had spoken to the boyfriend since the tragedy on Saturday. The boyfriend told her that he was sleeping on the first level of the home and woke up to screams, the neighbor said.
The boyfriend said he then saw the foster mother carrying an unresponsive child toward the front doorway of the home, according to the neighbor.
The neighbor said she believes the boyfriend and the foster mother have stopped talking since the death on Saturday. The neighbor said the foster mother was staying with her family, and friends are worried about her health.
Paul Jarvey, a spokesman for Worcester District Attorney Joseph D. Early Jr., said Wednesday that several key questions have not been resolved. He also said that the cause of death for the toddler has not been established because results of toxicology tests are still pending. "As the district attorney has said since Sunday, we are still looking for answers,'' Jarvey said.
The second toddler removed from the home remains in critical condition, Early said Tuesday. "The situation is dire," he said.
The body of the toddler has been released to her biological family who held a memorial service for her in Marlborough Wednesday night that was attended by about 40 people, including the child's biological mother, Jessica Conway.
"She was taken from us and our hearts are broken," Conway told mourners during the two-hour service. "We can't get her back, but we can keep her memory alive." Conway shared the stage with folding white poster boards covered with photographs and images of the toddler. At the end of the ceremony, attendees released balloons into the open sky.
"We love you Ava!" they yelled, paying final respects to their sister, daughter, and friend.
Neighbors told The Boston Globe that the two children both were seen with a severe rash on their arms last Thursday, a day after the social worker visited the home.
The Globe reported Tuesday that since 2008, police and emergency personnel responded to 28 calls to the foster home for reported assaults, threats, breaking and entering, a domestic disturbance, and medical emergencies. In addition, authorities were called 35 times to two homes in Auburn where the foster mother lived between 2004 and 2008.
State officials have pointed out that most of the calls occurred before the mother became a licensed foster mother last year.
"It's sad," said a neighbor. "She was a good mother."
Globe correspondent Matthew Healey contributed to this report. Astead W. Herndon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @AsteadWH. Michael Levenson can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.