Child dies 2 months after adoption
Numerous injuries, but no cause of death
WICHITA, Kan. (KWCH) - Aaron Carter was just six years old when he left his foster family to go live with his new adoptive parents. Two months later he was dead. Factfinder 12 spent the last year asking questions about the death and what we found has us asking even more questions about who failed this child and what needs to be done so it doesn’t happen again.
At five years old, Aaron Carter was just learning to communicate, and if you think that’s unremarkable for a five-year-old, you’d be wrong. When Aaron came to stay with foster parents Jamie and Tina Miller, any communication at all was unthinkable.
“When we got him, they said he was, quote, normal, but there was absolutely something terribly wrong. He would go along the wall and run his hand down it and just follow and just circled the entire day, nonstop,” Tina Miller said. “And he didn’t talk. He didn’t look at you, and if he did, he looked right past you like you didn’t exist.”
That can be very normal for an autistic boy who’d made his way into the foster care system after a very rough start to life, but the Millers tried their hardest to give Aaron what he needed even when he had no way to tell them what that was.
“He didn’t have any form of communication. If he got upset he would yell and scream or throw a tantrum, but that’s the only way he could voice any of his feelings or opinion or anything was by throwing a tantrum,” Jamie Miller explained. He was definitely, definitely more of a challenge than most. I would say he was the most difficult child I was ever around, but he taught me the most about being a parent of any child I’ve been around.”
As foster parents, Jamie and Tina estimate they’ve welcomed somewhere between 30 and 50 children into their home. They currently have ten children. Three of them are adopted, and it was almost four.
“When we first got Aaron, we made up our mind that we wouldn’t keep him forever. We wasn’t gonna adopt him,” Jamie said. “After he’d been here for three years, we started rethinking that.”
“I was like, ‘I can’t let him go’.” Tina added. “(Jamie) was like ‘I’m glad you said that. I feel the same way’.”
Three years in and gone was the little boy who looked right through you. The Millers worked to find Aaron the therapy experts say was paramount to his development. They developed important routines and took precautions for his safety. Aaron began wearing a helmet to protect him during those tantrums. It wasn’t the normal they may have been used to, but it was a new normal that they say was working.
He learned to communicate, both verbally and through the use of a special iPad. He helped with chores, at least as much help as any six-year-old can. The dream of making Aaron a permanent part of the family, though, was wiped away by the reality of what it would take to do that.
“(Aaron) was assigned a case manager. So I was able to call her and I asked her, I said ‘Well, what if he was to be adopted, what services will carry over’?” Tina said.
The Millers say they learned that if they adopted Aaron, they simply could not afford to provide what he needed, but shortly after, a Wichita couple said they could.
“We were believers, and we were lifting him up in prayer every day and, you know, hoping that when he went to Wichita it was what he needed,” Jamie said.
The couple was young and recently married. They had three dogs, a turtle and a snake, but no children. The Millers met them, shared dinner, and then Aaron had some overnight stays at their home. Jamie and Tina say that’s when they began to see “red flags.”
“It was apparent immediately that they weren’t interested in the consistency and doing the things that we knew we had proved over those years that he needed,” Jamie explained.
The Millers say the couple felt didn’t need the helmet Aaron wore to protect him during outbursts. The routine Aaron had come to rely on, they say, wasn’t followed during his visits to the Wichita home. In a pre-adoption family assessment, prepared by the Department of Children and Families which oversaw Aaron’s adoption and obtained by Factfinder 12, DCF found that one of the prospective parents struggled with methamphetamine and amphetamine addiction and had a history of being “quick to anger,” and the other parent struggled when people were disrespectful. The adoption process continued, and overnight visits with the Wichita couple continued as well.
“He left here on the18th of December and was supposed to be going for like a four-day weekend, come back for one more week and go on Christmas break for a visit and be back for Christmas,” Jamie and Tina explained. “But he never he never came back home.”
The reason, the Millers say, is because Aaron got sick. Over concern it may have been COVID, he stayed in Wichita.
“By the 16th of February he was gone,” Jamie said.
An adoption specialist delivered the unthinkable news.
“She said that Aaron passed away. He is deceased. That’s pretty much all I heard and I was just screaming at her on the phone,” Tina said. “I said, ‘I knew it. I knew this would happen. You killed him. You put him there. You knew he didn’t belong there and like ‘He never should have left.’”
The person on the other end of the phone then asked if the Millers would like to bury Aaron at the state’s expense. They had no idea what they’d learn by saying, “Yes.”
“His face looked horribly deformed,” Tina explained. “He just had bruises all over his face.”
“Every visible part that we could see was bruised,” Jamie added.
The summary of Aaron’s death released to Factfinder 12 is seven sentences in length. The autopsy reads that Aaron “had a tantrum” while taking a bath and hit his head on the tub. It also details 68 other injuries covering his entire body. No cause of death is listed.
There is an open investigation by Wichita police, DCF will not discuss the case, and the foster agency, St. Francis Ministries, will not return messages left by Factfinder 12. Neither will the Wichita couple who planned to adopt Aaron.
If there is anger from Aaron’s foster parents, and there is, it’s not directed at the couple who took Aaron in. It’s at the state, who they say, set a young couple up for failure.
“The people that made the decision to move Aaron should have known, should have had the training, should have had the experience to know this isn’t going to go good,” Jamie said. “There was so many blatant things, blatantly obvious things that said, ‘no, no, no, no, no’ and everybody said, ‘yes, yes, yes.’”
“I feel like that little boy, he died to keep other people safe,” Jamie continued. “Because there are so many kids out there that could end up just like him if things don’t change.”
So, what happened and what needs to change so that it doesn’t happen again? What can the state do to set parents, prospective parents and kids like Aaron up for a win in life?
“The cool thing about it all is that I feel like Aaron truly won because he’s in heaven now, and he can talk, he can communicate, he can ride a horse. He liked horses. He can do anything he wants to. So he won. That’s the way I see it,” Jamie said.
In the second part of this story, Factfinder 12 sits down with an expert in the field of autism research to hear about current challenges in the state dealing with autism within the foster care system and what needs to change.
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