Karen Heller: Khalil's death was preventable if city acted

Khalil Wimes, 6, died on March 19, savagely beaten.
Khalil Wimes, 6, died on March 19, savagely beaten.
Posted: April 25, 2012

Khalil Wimes died March 19, savagely beaten, tortured and starved of affection and food, weighing less than 30 pounds at age 6, allegedly at the hands of his biological parents.

"There was no surface of his body that didn't have an injury," says prosecutor Ed McCann. Khalil's parents, Tina Cuffie and Floyd Wimes, will face their preliminary hearing Wednesday for Khalil's murder.

Alicia Nixon, Khalil's foster mother until almost age 3, studied a photo of the child, emaciated, covered with welts. "I gave that red sweater to him when he was 3. He's wearing it age 6. He does not look 6."

Days after his death, Mayor Nutter said there was "no open case." The city's Department of Human Services never publicly addressed the case.

But as The Inquirer's Mike Newall documented in his heartbreaking investigation, DHS social workers saw Khalil eight times in the last eight months of his tragically brief life, four times in the couple's South Philadelphia apartment while monitoring two of his siblings. DHS had previously removed seven of Khalil's older brothers and sisters from the couple's care.

Seven.

"They were good at having children," Nixon says. "They didn't have the knack for being parents."

Nixon and her mother La Reine, who calls Khalil "my only grandchild," equally blame the system. Says La Reine: "I want to call on the carpet all the people who are paid to be responsible for these children."

Khalil had once been enveloped in love, given to Nixon and her then-husband J. Evans a week after Khalil's birth on Valentine's Day 2006 because, according to DHS files, of Cuffie and Wimes' "substance abuse" and lack of "parenting skills for both parents." Nixon is Wimes' distant cousin.

She and her mother adored the child and planned on raising him. That dream ended in November 2008 when Judge Charles J. Cunningham ruled in favor of returning Khalil to his parents, despite strenuous objections from a court-appointed child advocate and the fact that DHS had terminated Cuffie and Wimes' access to so many of their older children. A case worker also objected but was never allowed to testify.

"They called this reunification," Alicia Nixon says, referring to the policy of returning children in foster care to their natural parents. "They were never united because Tina only had him for a week."

DHS, led by acclaimed administrator Anne Marie Ambrose, serves almost 22,000 children. The agency instituted massive reforms after the horrific 2006 death of Danieal Kelly, who was starved, abused and weighed only 42 pounds at age 14, to ensure that the tragedy would never be repeated.

It was repeated.

On Tuesday, after The Inquirer's investigation, Nutter said "our hearts are heavy for Khalil" and called for "a complete investigation of everything that happened in this case."

Khalil, a bright child who knew his letters at age 2, was never enrolled at any school. Cuffie and Wimes claimed to be home-schooling Khalil, but DHS failed to investigate. He slept in a bare bedroom devoid of toys with a soiled plastic mattress, an exterior latch affixed to the door to lock him in, a prisoner.

The social worker who questioned Cuffie about Khalil's bruises and scars but sought no action was placed on desk duty Tuesday after The Inquirer's investigation. Her cases are being audited, as are those of her supervisor.

Khalil, La Reine Nixon says, "suffered one way or another for 1,000 days." Alicia and her mother never held him again after November 2008. La Reine notes, "The next time we would see our beloved Khalil was Friday, March 23, 2012, in his tiny little coffin."

The Nixons plan to attend Wednesday's hearing "and every single hearing I can," Alicia says. "When you see someone physically abusing a child, you need to place more accountability on the supervisors. Everybody is shirking responsibility," she says. "I'm doing this for all the children who have been wronged by some grown-up."

Khalil's death was preventable. Had custody not been awarded to troubled parents who had already proved their inability to parent, "Khalil would be still at home, in school," Alicia Nixon says. "He would be alive, thriving with the only family he'd ever known."


Contact columnist Karen Heller at 215-854-2586, kheller@phillynews.com, or follow @kheller on Twitter.

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