NORFOLK, Va. (WVEC) — Heaven Watkins was just a child when her family buried her. Police say she died at the hands of her mother and mother's boyfriend, but loved ones maintain there's more to Heaven's story.
13News Now traveled to Minnesota to investigate the situation. We talked with Heaven's aunt, who had custody of the little girl after social workers removed her from her mother's care. Aunt Sheronda Orridge believes that in the end, the child protection system did not protect her niece.
“I said, 'Heaven's not going to live long if you send her back there [to her mother's custody] and the blood going to be on your hands,'” she recalled.
Sheronda's repeated warnings to Minnesota child protection workers became her nightmare realized.
“That's something I didn't ever have to be right about that,” she lamented.
Despite lingering concerns from Sheronda and teachers at Heaven's school, a judge closed the CPS case against mom Latoya Smith in October of 2016. Smith, her children and her boyfriend Demont Harris moved to Norfolk, the next year.
Order for Dismissal by 13News Now on Scribd
Authorities now say the abuse continued here in Virginia.
“I struggle with myself, saying, 'What else could I have done?'” Sheronda wondered.
According to Norfolk prosecutors, in February of 2018, Heaven's hand was badly burned under a faucet. The injuries put her in the hospital for six days and she needed a skin graft. At the time, Smith explained she wasn't home at the time and Heaven had been alone in the bathroom when she turned on the scalding water.
Smith's attorney said CPS did get involved. But at the time, investigators did not bring criminal charges and did not remove Heaven from the home. Three months later, after Heaven died, there was a change: in addition to murder, Smith is now also charged with child abuse/neglect and Harris is charged with aggravated malicious wounding for the February burn incident.
We asked the Commonwealth's Attorney how something could not warrant charges at one point in time, then warrant charges three months later when a child turns up dead. A spokesperson responded information gathered during the homicide investigation in May led to abuse charges for the previous February allegation.
According to the state, investigators can only look at evidence from a specific incident. Officials explained none of the prior history we've uncovered in Minnesota could have been used in the February investigation. However, they also said that information can come in to determine if the child is at risk, and if that risk is so high, the family needs services or the child needs to be removed from the home.
We've repeatedly asked the City of Norfolk if the Department of Human Services was involved with this family. A spokesperson would only tell us, "Human Services is not prohibited from providing services or referring a family to services, even if an investigation is unfounded."
We also don't know if Norfolk CPS workers knew about that prior history. We've uncovered there is no mandate for workers to check with social services in other states and the city spokesperson won't confirm if that was done in this case.
Sheronda Orridge thinks contacting authorities in Minnesota could have saved Heaven's life.
“They would've known she had a case,” Sheronda added. “They would've known she was out of the home for 18 months. They would have known that and I think that would have helped them to remove her quicker.”
We've also found out even if Norfolk CPS had an idea there was a prior history and wanted to contact Minnesota authorities, there's no easy way to do it. The state systems don't work together.
Our investigation continues as we question state leaders about changes that could better protect Virginia's children.