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The conditions that led to a Connecticut toddler’s death

The sisters of Corneliuz Williams look at their brother in the casket. Their mother, Tabitha Frank, at right, watches.
Shahrzad Rasekh
CT Mirror
The sisters of Corneliuz Williams look at their brother in the casket. Their mother, Tabitha Frank, at right, watches.

A 2-year-old Hartford boy died in July after sustaining major injuries in a fall from a third story window. His family’s decades-long struggle was part of the problem.

WSHU’s Ebong Udoma spoke with CT Mirror’s Ginny Monk to discuss her article, “The forces that shaped a Hartford toddler’s life — and death,” as part of the collaborative podcast Long Story Short.

WSHU: Hello Ginny. You decided to try and look into the backstory of a tragic incident that happened in Hartford that resulted in the death of Corneliuz Shand Williams, a 2-year-old child who fell out of a third floor window. That was in July, and he later died. What did you find?

GM: So what we found with this story was essentially that it's a lot more complicated than it appears on the surface. So a lot of the coverage of this story was sort of breaking news pieces, things like that. And in talking more with the mom, I came to understand a lot more about the stresses that were on the family's life, largely as a result of poverty.

WSHU: Now, can you tell us a little bit more about Tabitha Frank?

GM: Yes. So she's a single mom of five children all under the age of 13. She's had a lot of difficulties in her life. She works as a CNA, she defines herself a lot by motherhood, her kids are her life.

WSHU: Let's talk about what happened on that day.

GM: Tabitha told me about how she was going to drive Uber and stop at the store, she had called Corneliuz’s father who just lives a few minutes away from her and thought he was coming to watch the kids. She left them alone, with her oldest who's 12 to watch over the younger ones, which is something that Tabitha did a lot when she was that age and even younger than her oldest daughter. And between the time that she left her son, Corneliuz, fell out of the third floor window and sustained some very severe head injuries.

WSHU: He later died from those injuries and she was arrested and charged. Could you just tell us a little bit about what she's facing as far as that's concerned?

GM: Sure. So initially, she was arrested and charged with 10 counts of risk of injury to a child, which is sort of the more minor charge that she's facing. After Cornelius died, she was charged with manslaughter, which can result in many years in prison. The risk of injury charges are five counts for each of the five children she left alone, and additionally, five counts for conditions in the home that police described as unlivable and horrendous.

WSHU: Could you tell us how she ended up in that home? And also the fact that DCF was involved with this family, and there was a visit just a month before this happened?

GM: Yes. So when she first moved to Connecticut, she was living in a homeless shelter. This is before her children were born. When she got pregnant, she qualified for a housing choice voucher and wound up in the apartment she was at, where she had reported several problems, including that the refrigerator was broken and that the window didn't latch.

DCF had been in and out of her and her family's life. And she had also had interactions with child welfare when she was a child living in the South. So there's sort of some history here. DCF had been called 18 times to investigate the family. And in conversations with DCF, they told me it's not uncommon for families to have multiple reports, particularly when they have a lot of children, and one of her children has mental illness and DCF told me that can result in more calls.

WSHU: Now, she is in Section 8 housing. But this particular apartment had been grandfathered and didn't need to have child protection in the windows. How did that happen? And how was she approved to live there with her children, considering that it was not safe for a young child?

GM: Yeah, so we're kind of getting into some of the complicated systems around housing and building code. Connecticut's current building code says that apartment residences with buildings that are closer to the floor and higher off the ground have to have some sort of window guards. So this can look like some of the bars you might see on windows. There are devices that only allow windows to be opened a few inches to prevent falls like this, but buildings that are older that were built before building codes like the one she was living in don't have to have these protections. There are a number of other inspections that can occur and that her apartment was subjected to, but they don't require window guards.

WSHU: Now, because she was on assistance, did that make it more difficult for her when she was charged? Could you just talk about what she's charged with, and what that means for her family?

GM: Yeah, so she's charged with some pretty serious offenses, the most serious of which being manslaughter. What this means for her family right now is that they can't be together. So she is not living with her surviving children, and they are not living with each other. So that's something that she and I have talked quite a bit about is that the family is really struggling both with grieving the death of her son, their youngest brother, and sort of grieving their family unit. They're struggling being apart right now.

WSHU: So it's going to be more difficult for her children growing up now.

GM: I mean, they're siblings, they've grown up together, they've lived together their whole lives, and suddenly this horrible tragedy occurs, and they're not living together anymore.

WSHU: What is her situation now? What do the prosecutors say?

GM: The prosecutors are saying the evidence shows that this was a case that warrants manslaughter charges, the case is pending, her next court date is at the end of October. And until then, she's doing visitations with her kids. She's looking for a new place to live, just sort of in a holding pattern right now.

WSHU: As far as legally, the prosecutor's hands are tied, what intervention could the state be doing right now to mitigate? Because basically, this seems to be a crime because she was poor and couldn't afford child care, and had to be working. Is there any policy that can be looked into to try and help a situation like this?

GM: The prosecutor, in their email statements to me, discussed the sort of ethical codes that they have, including that they can't charge someone essentially with bias because of their income. And I think this is just something we're going to see play out in court. But what you're getting at is certainly what Tabitha’s attorney has said, that she was sort of faced with this impossible choice of do I go out and earn money for my family when I believe that someone is going to be here to watch them in a few minutes? Or do I stick around until someone arrives?

WSHU: I'm thinking of, on a policy level. What, if anything, have you found that people could try to advocate for mitigating situations like this?

GM: Yeah, so one of the things Tabitha has pushed for is more state and local regulations requiring window guards in older buildings. One of the things we know is that families with low incomes tend to live in older housing. So that's something that she's brought up and that DCF said they try to raise awareness for every summer, particularly when people are opening their windows to try to cool down their homes.

The other thing that the legislature looked at last session is some of the regulations around when children can and cannot be left alone. So we saw some bipartisan pushes to sort of ensure that parents were legally allowed to let kids, sort of the discussion was around play outside unattended without being charged. These are some of the sort of higher level conversations that are already going on.

WSHU: In the meantime, Tabitha is looking at some serious jail time and basically not being able to be with her family.

GM: Yeah.

WSHU: Really tragic tale.

As WSHU Public Radio’s award-winning senior political reporter, Ebong Udoma draws on his extensive tenure to delve deep into state politics during a major election year.
Molly is a reporter covering Connecticut. She also produces Long Story Short, a podcast exploring public policy issues across Connecticut.