‘They killed my baby’: Texas mother speaks after son dies in protective custody

Published: Jul. 17, 2023 at 6:11 AM EDT
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HARKER HEIGHTS, Texas (KWTX/Gray News) - A mother of six is opening up for the first time since she lost her youngest son while he was in custody with the Texas Department of Family Protective Services.

Leah Joseph and her family want answers after the death of her 2-year-old son, Panache Petry. The toddler and his siblings were removed from Joseph’s home in September 2022 because of a call alleging the mother was smoking marijuana.

Joseph told KWTX that even though that moment was horrifying, an even bigger nightmare would soon follow.

“The cops came to my house and took the baby from me. Two months later, he died in CPS custody,” she said.

Joseph explained what happened during those two months through the eyes of her oldest child, with every story revealing more daunting details about their stay at Garden of Hope Foster Care Center, a facility in Harker Heights overseen by the Texas Department of Health and Human Services.

“He also told me that all the babies in there were sick with bumps all over their faces in the same nursery that my baby was in,” Joseph repeated what she was told by her teenage son.

Joseph and her attorney, Vic Feazell, claim Garden of Hope was negligent. An investigation by Feazell found the workers were not checking on the children enough. Joseph’s children say they weren’t fed properly, and Panache spent time covered in feces.

An autopsy revealed the 2-year-old died from COVID-19 and another respiratory infection. Joseph says that when he was taken, he was as healthy as could be.

Shortly after Panache’s death, Joseph says DFPS gave her children back to her and closed the case.

Feazell has spent decades in law and served as the McLennan County District Attorney. He says this case is appalling.

“This is the worst because this was done by people you are supposed to trust,” he said.

Feazell says they are starting the legal process, starting the discovery, and they are adamant about making people answer for what they did.

He has also sent a settlement demand to the attorney that represents Garden of Hope. The demand asks that both parties come to an amicable resolution on the wrongful death claim, but so far, Joseph and her attorney say they are getting stonewalled.

In the meantime, Joseph is choosing to remember what made her little boy so special.

“He loved the Ninja Turtles. At one point, I think he thought him and his brothers were Ninja Turtles,” she said with a smile.

Texas HHS confirmed to KWTX that Garden of Hope was issued two interim deficiencies, related to supervision and accurate documentation, just a few weeks after Panache’s death.

Garden of Hope is one of the state agency’s general residential operations and is frequently evaluated for compliance, HHS said. It is currently open and not on any enforcement action.