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Mother recalls final visit with child who died in DCF care

Aitia Smith-Gross played with her son, Peter Jr., during a visit. Peter was 3 months old when he died while in the care of the Department of Children and Families.Aitia Smith-Gross

The last time Aitia Smith-Gross saw her 3-month-old son, Peter, he wouldn’t stop smiling.

“I have videos of him smiling and laughing and trying to talk,” Smith-Gross, 23, said. “You know how when babies start to get their voice, like little baby voices.”

Less than a week later, officials from the state’s Department of Children and Families came to Smith-Gross’s home in Lawrence to tell her that Peter had died in the care of his foster parent in Methuen, she said.

Peter Smith-Gross Jr. is one of three children who died in separate incidents since mid-April, all while in the care of DCF. The Essex district attorney’s office announced Thursday that the three cases are under investigation.

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DCF officials told Smith-Gross that on April 25 Peter’s foster mother left him on his stomach and that when she returned 10 minutes later, he had stopped breathing, she said. Peter had been living in DCF care for two months.

“When he got to the hospital, that’s when they pronounced him dead,” Smith-Gross said. “They tried to revive him and they couldn’t.”

Smith-Gross said Peter was moved into foster care because of an issue with her housing situation, but she didn’t go into further detail. She visited her son for an hour every Friday and said she “never missed a visit.”

The officials told Smith-Gross that a determination of her son’s cause of death was “still pending,” she said. The state medical examiner’s office won’t be able to release Peter’s cause of death for another two to three weeks since they’re waiting for the results of another test, Smith-Gross said.

Marylou Sudders, the state’s health and human services secretary, said in a statement that the death of the infant in a foster home in Methuen appears to be the result of a “medical condition.”

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Two weeks after Peter moved into his foster home, Smith-Gross said, DCF officials informed her that he was taken to a hospital for RSV, a common respiratory virus.

The first-time mother said that Peter was put on antibiotics and that his breathing seemed “fine” during their final visit.


Sophia Eppolito can be reached at sophia.eppolito@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @SophiaEppolito.