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The forces that shaped a Hartford toddler’s life — and death

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The forces that shaped a Hartford toddler’s life — and death

Sep 24, 2023 | 9:42 pm ET
By Ginny Monk/CT Mirror
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The sisters of Corneliuz Williams look at their brother in the casket. Their mother, Tabitha Frank, at right, watches. SHAHRZAD RASEKH / CT MIRROR
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The sisters of Corneliuz Williams look at their brother in the casket. Their mother, Tabitha Frank, at right, watches. SHAHRZAD RASEKH / CT MIRROR

Tabitha Frank thinks her personal hell would be cold. 

The kind of cold that feels like it could slice to the bone. The kind of cold that makes your feet go numb. The kind of cold she felt waiting in the police station while a single thought churned through her mind:

My son is going to die alone.

At the time of Frank’s arrest, her 2-year-old son was fighting for his life with serious head injuries, unable to breathe on his own. When the call came in about the severity of his injuries, police took her to visit him before bringing her back to the station for the remainder of her interview and booking, according to the July 22 incident report.

Earlier that day, Frank — who worked part-time as an Uber driver — left her toddler, Corneliuz Shand Williams, with his four older sisters so she could pick up a passenger and stop by the store. Though she was working double shifts as a certified nursing assistant, the extra work driving for Uber would help cover the expense of back-to-school supplies. Frank says she thought Corneliuz’s father was going to arrive momentarily to watch him. 

But he didn’t arrive until it was too late. Instead, at 3:38 p.m. on July 22, reports came in that a toddler — her toddler — had plunged from a third-floor window and was badly injured. He died in the hospital two days later.

After the accident, the state placed Frank’s remaining children in the homes of other family members. She’s worried about the kids and says they are struggling with their grief over losing their brother when they’re separated from her and each other.

“It really was just an accident, what happened,” Frank said after her arrest. 

“This is not one of those situations where I went out clubbing, or I went out partying,” she said in a later interview. “If you knew my story — I’m not looking for sympathy — I’m just looking for understanding from people. And maybe if you knew what I was dealing with, maybe you could be understanding the situation, and kind of maybe even relate.”

Frank believes she’s being blamed for Corneliuz’s death because of one decision: she left her children alone.

“I feel like people are looking to blame someone, and they’re blaming me,” she said.

The Connecticut Mirror reviewed the police report, photos, videos and city housing records and conducted hours of interviews with Frank and others to understand the factors that led to Corneliuz’s death. 

What that research shows is that Frank’s decision to leave her children unattended that July day was not the only domino to fall before he died. It was simply the last.

Long-standing conditions of poverty and the stress of being a single mother of five children under the age of 13, among other factors, weighed on the family and contributed to Frank’s decision that day. Layered over all of this was a complex web of child welfare and housing laws that ultimately failed to prevent the tragedy that occurred.   

By the time emergency responders converged on Frank’s Hartford apartment, there had been years of missed opportunities — opportunities to address the substandard housing conditions in which she lived and opportunities to provide her with sufficient support to raise five children alone.

Police who responded to the accident said they found the children living in a filthy apartment that reeked of bad food and human waste. Frank and her attorney argue that it was just the result of five kids living in a house and said some of the living conditions were beyond her control.

The apartment failed two Section 8 inspections while the family lived there, with officials noting problems with mold, smoke detectors and damaged electrical sockets, among other issues. City code enforcement hadn’t inspected the apartment under its newly introduced system that aims to make housing safer. State law exempted the property from a requirement that it have window guards because it was built decades before building codes existed.

Child welfare workers with the state Department of Children and Families investigated the family 18 times before Corneliuz died and had most recently determined the children were safe in their home about a month before the accident, which Frank and her lawyer, Wesley Spears, point to as evidence she isn’t a negligent mother. The police simply came into her life on a bad day when the house was a mess and a horrible accident occurred, they argue.

But the state attorney’s office disagrees. They’re pursuing charges against Frank that could send her to prison for years.

Frank faces 10 counts of risk of injury to a child: Five counts for leaving five children alone. Five counts for raising five children in living conditions the police described as “horrendous.” 

And one count of manslaughter for her dead son.

A mother 

Though everyone called him Papa, when Corneliuz’s parents were deciding on his name they picked “Cornelius” because his father wanted something strong, or as his mother puts it, something “you have to say with your chest.” They added the Z at the end as a tribute to his older sister Zendaya, who clung to her mother’s side through the pregnancy.

Frank was sure the two would be best friends. At Corneliuz’s funeral, Zendaya waved to her brother in his tiny casket as her older sister hoisted her up by the waist so she could look at him.

“We can see Papa,” she exclaimed as she walked toward the coffin. She and her family dressed in red and white, in honor of the toddler’s favorite show, the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse.

Frank said the theme song’s opening notes used to get on her nerves. Now she’d give anything to hear them again.

“They are my reason for living, they are my purpose,” Frank said of her children.

Motherhood defines much of how Frank sees herself. She always knew she wanted to be a mom and started taking care of her younger siblings when she was in elementary school.

There were nine kids in her childhood home. Her younger sister, Brittany Walker, said it was often the job of the older siblings to care for the little ones. She remembers Frank cooking for her younger siblings, making do with whatever ingredients they had in the house.

“I feel like she always played that motherly role,” Walker said.

Frank’s phone is overflowing with photos of her kids. They’re snapshots of the normal moments of joy that flow through a family: first days of school, dance parties in the kitchen, the half-eaten pizza they had specially made so everyone could have their favorite toppings, that day at the waterpark when Corneliuz’s sister snatched his floatie and he marched right through the shallow end to demand it back.

The night before he died, Frank took her last photo ever with her son. It’s a close-up selfie. Mother and son are smiling through a camera filter that gives them both extra-long eyelashes. He’s perched on her back, his chin pressed into her shoulder.

Her mugshot is a stark contrast to the smiling woman in photos cuddling her kids. She looks shell-shocked, with a thousand-yard-stare. 

She got out on a $100,000 bond, and at an August court date, the prosecution declined to raise the bail amount. Her next court date is set for Oct. 31.

Frank describes her childhood in Florida and Georgia as rough and remembers more than one child welfare investigation, as well as harsh punishments for wrongdoing. She used to daydream of the life she’d offer her children: no beatings, few chores, all the toys they could ever want.

Her cousin Laura Baker recalled last winter when Frank went the whole season in sandals and socks so that she could afford new boots for all five kids. She often went without so her kids could have more, Baker said.

When she was in high school, Frank moved in with an older man. Her family sent her to Connecticut after graduation to get her away from him, but she had little beyond the clothes on her back when she moved. 

She lived in a homeless shelter for several months and rang the Salvation Army bell at Christmas to earn money to pay the security deposit for her first apartment. When she got pregnant with her first daughter, she qualified for a housing choice voucher.

Frank says the lack of stability early in her life left her occasionally unsure of how to best parent her children. She thought of the repeated DCF investigations as a gut check.

“Maybe I don’t know what’s right,” Frank said. “So if you see something or you hear something that may be alarming to you, how am I going to change it if you don’t tell me?”

The apartment

Frank wanted to move out of her Capitol Avenue apartment long before Corneliuz fell. She didn’t feel comfortable letting the kids play in the backyard because people with drug addictions and sex workers frequently passed through the area, she said. She paid $469 per month for the apartment, and her housing choice voucher covered the rest of the $1,550 rent. 

Frank’s apartment is on the top floor of a building on the western end of Capitol Avenue, near the West Hartford town line. The building also contains a laundromat and a small grocery store advertising EBT, cold cuts and snacks. A fluorescent Budweiser sign buzzes in the window of the Beacon Cafe across the street.

Her building, built in 1920, doesn’t have central air conditioning. Frank kept it cool with fans and a window air conditioning unit in her bedroom. She used to have a window unit in the back bedroom where Corneliuz fell, but she removed it because it would shake when she turned it on. It made her nervous.

Her kids were scared to use the back bedroom because one of the neighbors was noisy — they thought a monster lived in the walls — so they slept on cots in her room. She didn’t want them using that room anyway, because the lock on one of the windows didn’t quite latch.

From outside the building, several windows with box fans or window units, some with noticeable gaps in the space at the edge of the window, are visible. The window Frank says lacked a functioning latch is where Corneliuz eventually fell.

Frank’s cousin Baker said she recalls Frank telling her about problems at the apartment — a broken fridge and a “stuck” window. Frank’s sister, Williams, recalled similar instances and spotting problems over video calls.

Police reports say the children were playing on a dirty floor, there were large black spots, bags of garbage, stale food and a smell of urine and feces coming from the back bedroom. They also reference the lack of air conditioning, a lack of air flow and an “overwhelming foul odor.”

“The apartment condition was in an abysmal condition,” one officer’s account says. “I observed piles of dirty soiled clothing on the floor in each room of the apartment including the kitchen. There was dirt and food stains on the floor, wall and on the furniture in the apartment.”

It also says there were swarms of insects. Frank said she’d asked her landlord repeatedly to fix the window and to call an exterminator.

Frank attributes many of the conditions described by police to the difficulty of keeping a clean house with five children as a single working mother. Her refrigerator had been broken for days when police arrived, she said, leading to stale food. One of her children had wet the bed, and their damp clothes from a visit to the waterpark were in bags.

She transported laundry to the laundromat in garbage bags and said she’d planned to help her oldest daughter take out the trash later in the day — the girl struggled to take out the trash without dragging the bag on the floor.

Add to all that the fact the kids had been playing with slime the night before, she said. Slime sticks to everything and led to many of the spots police saw on the floor, Frank added.

“You guys don’t think kids can mess up a house?,” she said. “If two kids are in the house with a single parent, they make messes. You see how bad that is? Imagine five of them.”

Her attorney said the reports and ensuing charges show a lack of understanding of the stress the family was under.

“They’re making judgment calls that don’t meet with people’s circumstances,” Spears said in an interview.

A DCF worker had visited the house just a month prior and determined the house was safe enough for the children to stay. Spears said she hadn’t met the conditions of physical neglect of her children except once, in 2016.

Michael Williams, deputy commissioner of operations at the Department of Children and Families, said that terms such as “deplorable,” “messy,” or “unclean” are subjective.

“What’s deplorable to that one person, because they may never have walked into a home where there were roaches and rats and unlaundered clothes in the living room, because they don’t have washers and dryers and all of that, they may call that deplorable,” Williams said. “But for others who understand that and have lived that life before, it’s not deplorable.”

It may not be clean, Williams added, but it’s up to health officials to determine if a space is uninhabitable.

“It’s not clean,” he said. “Parents may not pay their utility bill, and the lights got turned off, the power is off for a period of time and food’s rotten in the refrigerator. Things like that occur when people are living in extreme poverty. But it’s not a cause for separating families and children.”

The Hartford Police Department’s Lt. Aaron Boisvert said police are mandated reporters if they come across children in conditions that are “deplorable” and that they’re required to contact DCF. He suggested that a simple reading of the report would support the description.

Boisvert added that police will often call in professionals such as DCF if they’re unsure about the context around conditions.

“Let’s say I go to a house and I say I don’t think it is safe,” Boisvert said. “I’m not really sure if maybe this is a one-time thing.”

Housing code

Frank’s home fell through the cracks of a few safeguards that exist to ensure housing is safe. She and her attorney have spoken often about the need for window guards since Corneliuz’s death. It’s a safety measure DCF advertises each summer as many families open windows to stay cool.

Her apartment hadn’t been inspected by city housing code enforcement in at least three years. Their inspections are largely complaint-driven.

While they take anonymous complaints, many tenants are hesitant to report problems to the city for fear of retaliation, said Judith Rothschild, Hartford’s director of blight remediation. Her department conducts inspections. 

The city is also rolling out a program that involves the licensing of city landlords and requires property inspections. It was established in 2019, but so far city inspectors have only visited larger buildings. The goal — to inspect smaller buildings like Frank’s by 2025 — comes too late for her family. 

State law also requires local fire marshals to inspect multi-family residences with at least three units annually. City records show that Frank’s hasn’t been inspected since 2018. Fire marshals across the state have reported that they don’t have the staff needed to fulfill this mandate.

“No municipality within the state has the amount of resources it would take,” said Hartford Fire Marshal Ewan Sheriff. “We try to do the best we can.”

Often, it takes months to contact the landlord to give them the results of the inspection, he said. In the case of Frank’s apartment, it took about four months to contact the landlord after the 2018 inspection.

Sheriff said there had been nearly 100 calls to Frank’s building since 2004, including medical calls, nuisance reports and activated alarms. He added that during the visits, and during the 2018 inspection, they didn’t notice anything particularly concerning, other than a couple of smaller violations related to smoke detectors and hallway lighting.

“Every time that we responded, that wasn’t something that came up on our radar, so I apologize for that,” Sheriff said, of Frank’s safety concerns about the window. “But we are doing the best we can with our resources.”

Connecticut’s current building code mandates that windows that are high off the ground and low to the floor have either window guards or a device that allows the window to open only a few inches. The state adopted that code in 2016, said Johnny Carrier, a member of the Department of Administrative Services’ State Codes and Standards Committee.

Building code applies only to new construction or recently renovated properties, Carrier added. Frank’s apartment wouldn’t have been covered under the code because it was built in 1920 and renovated in 2012, according to property sale information.

The International Building Code adopted the window protections in 2006, said Jonathan Wilson, deputy director at the National Center for Healthy Housing.

“We’re doing a good job protecting people that move into new houses in communities that adopt the building code,” Wilson said. “But most of the places we live in are still older than 2006. That’s where the issue is.”

People with low incomes often live in some of the oldest housing stock, Wilson added.

“In a state like Connecticut, obviously we’ve got a very old housing stock, a lot of old buildings,” Carrier said. “There’s a ton of buildings out there that aren’t up to modern code.”

Frank had a housing choice voucher through the city of Hartford. The programwhich covers a portion of the rent for people with low incomes, is managed by Imagineers, LLC.

Frank’s apartment failed inspection twice — once in March 2022 and again in May 2023. If a building fails, program officials give the landlord a set amount of time to fix the problem. Both times in this case, the landlord got subsequent letters alerting him he had made enough repairs to be in compliance.

A housing choice voucher inspection from May 2 noted that there was a “strong odor” in the bathroom, likely in the wall near the bathtub, mold-like stains in the ceiling, cracks in the wall, mold-like stains around the tub and water damage on the ceiling. It notes that several windows had screens, but does not note it for the right rear bedroom.

Inspectors also noted that the tenant had removed the smoke detectors, which needed to be replaced.

Frank says her son’s father had taken them down because they sounded often and without an apparent reason, waking the baby.

On May 30, Imagineers sent a letter to the landlord stating the unit was once again in compliance with federal standards.

Jeffrey Perez, the principal of 1079-93 Capitol LLC, the company that owns Frank’s building, didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment. Frank says she’d asked maintenance staff working for the previous landlord, Housing Consultants, LLC, for window guards.

Reached via email, Mike Grant, a co-owner of Housing Consultants, declined to comment.

“The property was sold more than one year ago, and has a new owner since then,” Grant wrote in an email. “The incident did not happen while we were involved with the property.”

Frank set out to buy the window guards herself, seeking advice about what to purchase from workers at a hardware store.

The devices they recommended were $48 per window. With several windows throughout the house, it was a hefty price to pay at a place she hoped to move out of soon.

So she opted to skip the cost in hopes of getting out of the apartment more quickly.

“A window is the last thing you should be worried about taking your child’s life,” she said. She thinks there should be more state or local requirements for window guards, she added.

Poverty and neglect

Money has often been top-of-mind for Frank, especially as her kids get older.

She’s had weeks where she wasn’t sure how she was going to afford enough food for her kids, she said.

“How do you balance not watching your kids cry over the last sip of milk?” she said. “Or they’re upset because there are no more chicken nuggets in the refrigerator.”

She believes many of the reports to DCF about her stemmed from bias. She’s had mental health struggles and thinks that plays into a belief that she can’t parent her children. For example, one morning before school, her kids refused to put on coats. She’d recently heard about using natural consequences as discipline for kids, and decided to try it.

So, she told them to either wear the coats or put them in their bags. When they showed up to school not wearing coats, someone called DCF.

“No matter how many times I try, I find myself getting knocked 10 steps down,” Frank said. “I came to realize that maybe we’re born into it, some of us.”

Other DCF reports have been related to her children’s father’s behaviors, she said. And more were results of one of her children’s mental illness. But she tries to take the opportunities to learn more about parenting, although she says she wishes the DCF-mandated classes would last longer and offer more services, such as child care.

“When they hear ‘DCF,’ they automatically think the kids are being abused and neglected,” Frank said. “It might mean this mom needs support.”

DCF declined to comment on many details of her case but offered some statements to reporters.

“As the family and community grieve the loss of this baby, Corneliuz S. Williams, please pause any judgment on individuals who are subject to child maltreatment allegations,” the Aug. 4 statement read. “The Department of Children & Families has responded to a total of 18 prior reports on the family. On only one occasion, in 2016 and prior to the birth of Corneliuz, were conditions present in the home of Ms. Frank which met the statutory criteria of physical neglect resulting in a substantiation.

“The last contact we had with the children was in mid-June 2023, and based on the assessment at the time, further child protective services involvement was not warranted — and the case was in the process of being closed — resulting in no additional visits or contact. The children were visible within their community and DCF had contracted with a community provider who was connected to the family to assist Ms. Frank in supporting her five children.”

Research has shown high levels of correlation between poverty and neglect accusations. Families with low incomes and families of color are far more likely than wealthier, whiter peers to face child neglect allegations.

A 2005 study on hot car deaths showed that, of the parents studied who left children in cars, wealthier parents were far less likely to face criminal prosecution compared to parents with low incomes. This held true even when the author controlled for cases in which the parent left a child in the car on purpose.

“It is poverty that leads to the prosecution,” said Richard Wexler, executive director at the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform. “It is also often poverty that leads to the tragedy.”

In an emailed statement, state’s attorney Sharmese Walcott pointed to prosecution standards and rules of ethics that prohibit bias or prejudice based on socioeconomic status.

“I cannot overstate how unethical and repugnant that would be,” Walcott’s email said.

“My decisions to charge are based on the facts presented applied to the law, without regard for a person’s socioeconomic status.”

She added that she can’t go into details on the case because it could influence potential jurors, in violation of prosecutorial rules.

“The decisions made in this case, like in every other case, are an application of the facts to the law,” she wrote. “After review, the analysis is that this defendant is criminally liable for the tragic and untimely death of one child and risking injury to the surviving children.”

While DCF officials said they offer training and push to ensure that poverty and neglect aren’t confused among their case workers, they often get repeat calls from the same neighborhoods — many of them about families that have low incomes.

“There is an over representation of impoverished communities that end up coming to the attention of the department,” said Tina Jefferson, DCF’s bureau chief of child welfare. “But we do our best to work with those families, to work with those communities, and work with the service providers to address the needs identified.”

Kelley Fong, a researcher whose book on child welfare systems based on research in Connecticut and Rhode Island is publishing this fall, said a child falling in this way could have occurred under many circumstances.

“It just struck me that the condition of the home was not directly related to what happened to this toddler,” Fong said. “This accident could have happened in any kind of home.

“It just so happened that this was the case, and I’m not going to pretend that there — families that are under stress, that can manifest in a number of different ways, it can manifest in the child care, it can manifest in the home.”

Child care

Police reports, which included interviews with Corneliuz’s father, Christopher Shand, say that Frank was expecting the father to be there soon. Shand declined to comment for this story.

“What are you supposed to do when you got to go out and make money and you need someone to watch the kids?” Walker, Frank’s sister, said.

Frank’s oldest daughter, who is 12, was supposed to watch the kids until Shand arrived.

DCF’s Williams said many problems come down to addressing poverty for many families. He pointed to the recent successes of Connecticut’s earned income tax credits and some jurisdictions where families are being offered money each month to help alleviate some problems such as child care.

“We would be remiss if we didn’t take this opportunity to push forward here in Connecticut, that we have to address poverty through some sort of income security for poor folks so that families and parents don’t have to make devastating choices,” Williams said.

State lawmakers during the last legislative session limited the circumstances under which a parent or guardian can be found guilty of leaving a minor unattended.

Previously, state law made it a class A misdemeanor to leave a child under the age of 12 unsupervised in a public place or a car for a period of time that “presents as substantial risk to the child’s health or safety.” Senate Bill 1133, which was signed into law earlier this year, says that consideration must be given to whether the person “exercised judgment that a reasonable person would use to determine if the child was of sufficient age, maturity, and physical and mental ability to be unsupervised,” according to bill analysis.

Lawmakers also considered a bill that would have allowed parents to be charged if the conditions presented an obvious danger to the child’s health or well-being. That bill, Senate Bill 1048, passed through committee but didn’t get a vote on the floor.

Frank says she didn’t have anyone else to babysit and often struggled with working and finding child care. The death last year of one of Frank’s uncles, who often helped watch her kids, significantly limited her options for child care, Baker said.

“He was my support system,” Frank said.

Her sister, Walker, said Frank needed more support when Corneliuz was alive. She said repeatedly that Frank “goes hard” for her kids.

“She shouldn’t have to go so hard,” she said. “I don’t think the support was the best.”

Wexler said many neglect issues, including some of the conditions described in police reports, could be solved with more services.

“What you have is an overwhelmed mother who has to go out to make ends meet and can’t afford an apartment with a window guard,” he said. “That should not be a criminal offense.”

Corneliuz

Corneliuz was born early. Frank had pre-eclampsia and complications that worsened with each pregnancy, including her last.

“I wanted them,” she said. “I loved them.”

Corneliuz had some health struggles as an infant, but as he got older and stronger, he hated being treated like a baby. His mom says he was an “old soul.”

He loved Mickey Mouse, dancing with his sisters and pasta. He was caring and protective of his mother, funeral goers said at his August service.

“That was her son … she’s been waiting for him forever,” Walker said. “She had four girls, and when she found out she was having a boy, the way that she just loved him.”

July is Frank’s birthday month, but now she refers to it as his month — because it will forever mark his death in her mind. It’s a reminder that she’s getting older while her son isn’t.

The family is struggling while they’re apart, Frank said. Her 4-year-old keeps asking when she can come home and is struggling with her mental health. Their grief for their brother is compounded by missing each other, she said.

Many who gave speeches at his funeral spoke directly to Frank, reminding her that she is a good mother who loves her children. Others spoke about the difficulty of losing a child, how it stays with you, becomes a part of your being for years to come.

The Rev. Samuel Saylor, who has been counseling Frank through the loss of her son, said when he read the news articles, it brought to mind his experience of being the child of a single mom doing her best to provide for her children.

“[It’s] single moms trying to raise their children and do the best that you can for them,” Saylor said. “Living on the margin and making margin calls in your life. This narrative that was put out there was not the truth.”

The truth, he said, is found in the story of a mother who loves and misses her son. He spoke of similar sentiments to the poem Frank wants etched onto Corneliuz’s headstone:

“Your life was a blessing, your memory a treasure. 

You are loved beyond words and missed beyond measure.”