Ashley Young slipped into her son’s hospital bed Monday afternoon, kissed his face and hands, and sang him the songs he had always loved to dance to.
“Pooh Bear, Pooh Bear, I love my Pooh Bear.”
She said she told the toddler that he had to wake up: They had to decorate his bedroom and they had a trip planned to Disney World.
But 3-year-old Kenai Whyte did not move. His body was bruised, cut, scraped, and swollen, and the doctors said he could not hear her, she said. He died Tuesday, his mother curled at his side.
“Mommy will find out what happened to you,” Young, 27, said she promised him.
Kenai’s death is under investigation, and police have released few details about the surrounding circumstances. The boy was found unresponsive at his father’s house on Alpine Street in Roxbury Sunday night, just days after a Department of Children and Families social worker reported that he was well-fed and clean.
Officials have not yet determined what killed him. Young said the doctors told her it appeared as though the child had been beaten. Police declined to comment.
Governor Charlie Baker said Friday that the DCF is working with the Suffolk district attorney’s office to determine what happened during the two days between a social worker’s check on Kenai and the moment he was rushed to a hospital on the verge of death.
“In the short term, the big issue is: What happened between between the 29th and the 31st?” Baker told reporters Friday.
The department is reviewing its handling of the case.
In the wake of the boy’s death, DCF removed another child from his father’s house, DCF has said, and Young said the agency also took her two daughters, an infant and a 6-year-old.
In the same breath, Young said, she had to tell her older daughter that her brother had died and that she couldn’t come home with Young and her fiance. Young said she had not been given an explanation for why her daughters were taken. The DCF declined to comment on any aspect of the case.
On Friday night, Young sat in her Revere apartment assembling a memorial for her son, fitting pictures of his smiling face into frames. He was a rambunctious child who couldn’t wait to be a “big boy” and loved to do everything by himself, she said. He was proud to be a big brother and nicknamed his baby sister “Peanuts.”
“It hurts that nobody knows what happened to him,” Young said.
The boy’s short life was marked by upheaval. Young fled her marriage to Kenai’s father, Dave Whyte Jr., when their son was just 3 months old, according to Young and court documents, which allege that Whyte abused her. They lived in a domestic violence shelter with Young’s older daughter for another three months, she said, then spent a year living with Young’s mother before moving to another shelter, then a motel. She had been in her apartment less than a month when Kenai died.
The DCF was involved from the time the boy was a baby, according to court documents. Young shared physical custody of Kenai with the boy’s father, who had legal custody. Whyte’s criminal record includes multiple dismissed charges of domestic violence against women. Reached by phone, he declined to comment.
But in the last month, Young said, things were looking up.
She moved into the new apartment with her children and her fiance, and Kenai was excited about decorating his bedroom with characters from “PAW Patrol,” a TV show he loved. It was the first time he had a space of his own.
Young’s infant daughter, born prematurely in November, was finally home from the hospital. Snow was coming, and Young bought a snowman-making kit. She got Kenai a snowsuit. They got Internet service. The apartment felt like home.
Last Thursday, when Young went to drop Kenai off at day care, where his father would pick him up later, the boy asked if he could stay home with her, she said.
“Mommy will see you soon,” she told him.
Young can’t bear to open her day planner and see the list of pants, shirts, and sneakers to buy for Kenai and her daughters. She went grocery shopping and found herself unable to buy strawberries or doughnuts — Kenai’s favorite. Her fiance offered her an orange, and she broke down sobbing: Kenai loved oranges. Her fiance threw out every orange in the apartment.
“When I get the kids back . . . my son won’t be here,” Young said.
On the dresser in his bedroom, where she said she goes twice a day to say good morning and good night to Kenai, Young has a print of his hand and foot, taken in the moments after the doctors declared him dead. A wisp of his baby-fine hair lies in a bag in a cushioned blue box. The prayer blanket they covered him with in the hospital is folded neatly; the two bears he was holding when he died sit on the dresser and on his bed. She will keep one and bury the other with her child.
Young has not been able to make funeral plans yet, she said.
“He is my world; he is my king,” she said, and with a gasp caught herself speaking in the present tense. She started to correct herself, then shook her head. “No — he is. I’m gonna keep it that way. He still will always be.”