Foster care agency settles lawsuit over death of Philly 10-year-old

A lawsuit filed on behalf of the family of a 10-year-old foster child who fell ill while at school, then died after neither school staff nor his foster parents sought medical treatment for his gastric condition, ended with two Philadelphia social service providers agreeing to pay $5 million, attorneys announced.

Ethan Okula, 10, died on Feb. 10, 2016, after he fell ill at his North Philly elementary school in the morning with severe intestinal pain. He was brought to his foster home that afternoon, and by evening, he had stopped breathing. The cause of death was later determined to be an intestinal blockage, caused by a gastric condition.

Northeast Treatment Centers (NET) had placed Ethan in the home of foster mom Denise Alston, 55, seven months prior, with Turning Points for Children providing case management. But the agencies did not adequately inform Alston of Ethan’s medical history, attorneys Nadeem Bezar and Emily Marks said in a lawsuit they filed by on behalf of Ethan’s grandparents and brother, who is also in foster care and will be the beneficiary of the lawsuit.

“Ethan was a precious, adorable child who was failed by adults on so many levels,” NET president Regan Kelly said in a statement. “Tragically, there was a huge communication breakdown in his case. As a result we never had the critical information, and on the day of his death we did not have the opportunity to intervene. Others did have that opportunity. And that makes Ethan’s death all the more heartbreaking.”   

According to a state investigation of Ethan’s death, he fell ill at Julia De Burgos Elementary in North Philly around 9:38 on Feb. 10, with symptoms including vomiting, defecating on himself and being unable to walk. But no one at the school called 911 when Alston’s friend, Carol Fletcher, 53, didn’t come to pick up Ethan until 1 p.m. (Several school staff including a nurse who left the school while Ethan was ill were later fired).

Alston and Fletcher left Ethan on a couch, believing him to be ill from overeating, they later told state foster care investigators. They realized he had stopped breathing around 6 p.m. and called 911, but it was too late.

“It hurts my heart to think about how Ethan spent his last few hours in pain before he died alone,” Bezar said in a statement. “I pray that the tragedy of Ethan’s death continues to inspire those who work in child welfare to continue to protect this vulnerable population.”

In March, both Alston and Fletcher were both charged with involuntary manslaughter for Ethan’s death. That case is still pending and they have denied any wrongdoing or knowing about his gastric condition.

Ethan’s death and other cases prompted a wave of reform at Philly DHS. The agency said it has increased compensation for foster parents, now holds monthly meetings with resource parents, providers, and older youth “to support excellent parenting in foster care,” communications more with the School District, is recruiting new foster parents and has decreased social worker caseloads to a current average of about 11 cases per social worker.

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