But when Khalil was about 3 years old, a Family Court judge gave Hadi and Cuffie custody of their son with the approval of the city's Department of Human Services, the Inquirer has reported.
That proved a fatal mistake.
And it has haunted family members who loved the boy.
At Hadi and Cuffie's sentencing hearing yesterday, Nixon, 37, thought back to the little boy she had loved and wished once again "to kiss his little cheeks, to hug him, to sing with him, to dance with him, to tickle his little feet, to hear him call me 'Mommy,' " she tearfully told the judge.
She asked the judge to give the boys' parents the maximum sentence "so they will die in captivity, the way Khalil did. They will be provided with hot meals [in prison]," she noted ironically. "Khalil was deprived of that."
Common Pleas Judge Barbara McDermott, a former defense attorney, said the pain and torture inflicted by Khalil's parents for three years on their son makes this "the worst case I've seen."
"This is not a day for mercy," she said before sentencing each defendant to 30 to 60 years in state prison.
The judge in September convicted Hadi and Cuffie of third-degree murder and related offenses after hearing painful testimony and looking at horrific autopsy photos of Khalil's body during a nonjury trial.
First Assistant District Attorney Ed McCann told the judge this case "was a prolonged torture of a child in every respect." According to trial testimony, on the day before Khalil died, the little boy, starving and covered with scars, was forced to run around a room in his parents' South Philly apartment because his mother wanted to punish him. She would scream at him to get up whenever he fell down.
This so-called punishment was the "most barbaric thing I have ever heard," McCann told the judge. He asked the judge to sentence the parents to the maximum term of 33 1/2 to 67 years.
About 15 family members came to court, with some wearing white T-shirts with Khalil's name and buttons with his photo.
"I constantly thought of how Khalil didn't get hugs, he got hits," Bashera Abdul-Hadi, the boy's aunt and Hadi's sister, told the judge.
"Every time I fed my son, I thought of Khalil and how hungry he must have been. . . . I torture myself with the constant thought of 'Why didn't I do more? Why didn't I hire an investigator?' "
La Reine Nixon, Alicia's mother, told the judge how her family had begged the city's child-welfare system "not to make Khalil this sacrificial lamb." But "no one would listen that Khalil should not be given to" his birth parents, she said.
She said that after Khalil began living with his parents, she would sometimes sit outside their house trying to catch a glimpse of him. "Khalil was a prisoner in that house," she said.
She asked the judge to order that a picture of Khalil be put in Hadi's and Cuffie's prison cells as a reminder of the life they destroyed. McCann agreed with that sentiment, suggesting that each parent wear two photos of Khalil around their necks - one of him before they got custody of him and another of him dead on the autopsy table with the words, "We did this."
(Judges cannot require prison officials to carry out such conditions.)
Hadi told the judge he loved his son, but "failed in a lot of instances due to my own selfishness." He said he already has a photo of his son, smiling, in his cell. "It hurts me every day," he said with tears on his face.
Cuffie also said she loved her son. "I made bad decisions, bad choices," she said in a tearful, broken voice, adding "We were too coward to say we needed help."
On Twitter: @julieshawphilly