AUBURN — In death, she was the center of attention.
Emotional tributes to Avalena Conway-Coxon began in Auburn, where she died suddenly in foster care on a hot Saturday in August, and spread to Marlborough, where she was laid to rest last week.
Investigators combed for clues on what happened to the 2-year-old — a question that remains unanswered two weeks later. And the governor promised a review of the handling of her case by the beleaguered Department of Children and Families.
But during a short life spent surrounded by turmoil, little Ava often seemed to be an afterthought.
She was born into chaos, a smiley, doe-eyed baby whose parents’ problems with the law continued unabated after her birth. She spent the first months of her life in a Worcester recovery house with her mother, Jessica Conway, who less than three months after Ava’s birth pleaded guilty to stealing $2,000 worth of merchandise from a JCPenney store.
Her father, Ronald Green Jr., twice filed for custody of the girl but never showed up for the hearings that followed. On his second application, he got Ava’s birthday wrong by four months.
Conway was 25 and battling heroin addiction when she gave birth to Avalena on Aug. 10, 2013. Pictures posted with loving captions on social media show the little “baby burrito” swaddled and drinking from a bottle, smiling as her godmother kisses her head, and grinning at the camera with a big pink bow in her wispy hair.
Conway has said she was clean when her daughter was born. Later, after she faltered and lost custody, Ava became her reason to get sober once more. In the days before Ava died, Conway’s Facebook page was filled with pictures of her little girl. “Mommy loves u n im working hard to be together again XOXOX,” she wrote.
But for all the hope her baby brought to her life, Conway appears to have been unable to escape the vortex of drugs and theft. She declined multiple requests for interviews, as did many of her friends.
Conway’s criminal record is filled with betrayals of friends and lovers: She stole checks from a fellow addict’s grandparents and jewelry from her boyfriend’s mother. Her crimes were often shortsighted and desperate: In April of 2012, she was charged with assault with a dangerous weapon and disorderly conduct after stealing juice from a Walgreens, getting caught, and smashing the glass bottles on the counter.
“She’s not in some gang where she sets out every morning to be a criminal. She just falls into it,” said Brian Auricchio, who dated Conway briefly in 2012.
She shoplifted often, Auricchio said. After one trip to Walmart, Conway opened her purse to reveal a jumble of press-on nails, perfume, tinted lip balm, and earrings.
“I feel bad for her, in a way,” said Auricchio’s mother, Phyllis Auricchio.
The relationship ended after Conway stole $4,000 worth of Phyllis Auricchio’s jewelry and pawned it. When Auricchio looked at the surveillance picture police brought her of Conway in the pawn shop, she noticed something familiar in the street outside: her Mercedes-Benz. Conway had apparently driven it to the shop. She pleaded guilty to the larceny in October 2012.
Conway already had a son when Ava was born, though Auricchio and others who knew her say she did not have custody of him, and talked about getting him back.
One man who spent time with Conway several years ago said she seemed convinced that the boy would one day come to live with her. The man, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he said he has gotten clean and is starting over, is listed in court documents as a person who used drugs with Conway.
“She was very, very excited about getting him back,” he said. “But every time she started to go into withdrawals, she chose the drugs over the child.”
He said she persuaded him to furnish a room in her house for the little boy, with a bed, a basketball hoop, a television, a play mat, and some toy cars, by promising to repay him in heroin. And he recalled one morning when she was supposed to visit with the boy, but instead used heroin and passed out. When she awoke, he overheard her on her phone:
“So what? I guess I’ll see him next time.”
But if Conway brought a difficult past to her daughter’s life, Ava’s father was almost completely absent.
Green had spent time in a house of correction for selling crack cocaine near an elementary school and attacking his wife, according to court records. By the time Ava was born, state documents show, he had been married to a woman who was not Conway for almost five years and had at least two other children. He has said he was not involved in his daughter’s life because he was in jail on charges related to his drug problems. In both of his filings attempting to gain custody of his daughter, he listed himself as indigent. He did not respond to requests for comment.
Just a few days past Ava’s first birthday, Conway lost custody altogether.
Ava shows up just once in the scores of pages of filings that constitute Conway’s criminal record, as a handwritten footnote on a probation violation form, dated Aug. 13, 2014:
“Shelter-report fresh needle marks in neck. . . . Admitted use on last night daughter taken by DCF.”
A DCF spokesperson declined to say when Avalena first took up residence with a foster mother at a three-bedroom duplex apartment on Pheasant Court in Auburn, though neighbors said they believed she had moved in about a year ago.
There, neighbors recalled, Ava’s foster mother pushed her in a stroller along the dead-end street, separated by a row of trees from Interstate 290 and lined with well-kept subsidized housing units.
The 34-year-old foster mother was described by friends and neighbors as a caring and conscientious parent to her own children — two biological and one adopted — as well as to Ava and the other half-dozen foster children who lived with her since she was licensed in early 2014.
In February of this year, the foster mother received a waiver that allowed her to care for two more young children — a 6-month-old and a 22-month-old.
“What I know of her, she was a very kind, very loving mother,” said Angela Newton, whose biological daughter was adopted by the foster mother in 2006. “I trusted her with my own.”
The foster home was not over capacity, DCF officials have said, and though six kids under one small roof could challenge any single parent, Newton said the foster mother’s support system was strong.
“Her family is so big and so kind. If she wasn’t at home, she was with her family. Her mother was there every day. She had aunts and uncles who lived down the street,” Newton said.
Pheasant Court wasn’t always quiet. Police and emergency personnel have been called to the foster home 28 times since 2008, records show, including reports of assaults, breaking and entering, and medical emergencies.
In the year before Avalena’s death, there were only two: a November 2014 medical call for abdominal pain and a September 2014 call about a possible suspicious person or vehicle in the vicinity that police logged without a report.
But life at 2 Pheasant Court was rarely peaceful, said neighbor Angelisa Cephas, a 16-year resident of the street.
“People come in and out of her house all the time,” Cephas said. “I said to my husband, ‘The cops should just sit there and wait for something to happen.’ ”
Cephas who recalled the foster mother’s older children coming to the door of her two-bedroom unit across the street, swearing and asking her for food.
“There’s usually some kind of drama going on — somebody fighting over somebody else’s boyfriend,” Cephas said.
While the foster mother had no criminal history, her boyfriend at the time of Avalena’s death has a long rap sheet dotted with drugs and violence.
The boyfriend, 33, was not registered with DCF as a person having contact with the foster children, though some neighbors said he lived in the Pheasant Court home.
In Florida in 2005, he pleaded guilty to animal cruelty and grand theft when, according to a police report, he cut the nose and throat of a roommate’s dog and demanded crack cocaine.
In more recent years, he lived for a time in the woods behind the Stop & Shop in Gardner, where police found him after he was accused of punching, choking, and kicking the mother of his son in 2011 — a charge that was later dismissed. In a 2013 police report, he allegedly showed up at the same Gardner apartment, drinking from a bottle of hand sanitizer, and punched the woman in the face. That case was also dismissed.
And in a pending case, he and another woman allegedly pried $24 from the hand of a man in Worcester.
Efforts to contact the boyfriend for this story were unsuccessful. A spokesman for the Worcester district attorney said he had been interviewed about Avalena’s death, but he has never been described as a suspect in the case.
On Aug. 10, Avalena celebrated her second birthday.
“All of our family attended and showered her with gifts and love,” the foster mother’s sister said.
Two days later, on Aug. 12, DCF paid what officials have described as a routine visit to the home. Nothing unusual turned up, an official said.
But three days after that, shortly after noon on Saturday, Aug. 15, the foster mother called 911. Paramedics found Avalena and the 22-month-old, whose identity has not been released, unresponsive.
Five days after her second birthday, Avalena Conway- Coxon was dead.
In the weeks since, few details have emerged about what killed Avalena and left the 22-month-old hospitalized; she remains in dire condition.
People familiar with the case have said the girls were hot to the touch, with elevated temperatures and signs of bruising from a seat belt harness, but officials have not released a cause of death; no charges were filed.
The case remains under investigation by Auburn and State Police; a DCF report on the death is expected to be completed at the end of September.
“We can say with complete certainty the cause investigators will find will be nothing more than a complete freak accident,” the foster mother’s sister told WCVB-TV. “We are confident there is zero chance anything with intent or malice occurred.”
In the days after the girl’s death, Conway — who had not seen Avalena since her release from a house of correction in Framingham earlier in the month — lashed out at both the foster mother in whose care the child died and at the system that placed her there.
“Something needs to be done,” Conway said. “They need to do something about my daughter’s death.”
The foster mother, too distraught to speak, according to her sister, also lost custody of the five surviving children, who remain in the care of DCF.
At an Aug. 21 funeral service in Marlborough, Conway set up posters adorned with snapshots of Avalena smiling into the camera. An hour or so later, the funeral drew to a close. Someone stacked up the posters and slid them into the back seat of Conway’s car.
The pallbearers loaded the tiny casket into a hearse, and Avalena was gone.