PALESTINE, TX (KLTV) - An East Texas child died from abuse at the hands of his step-father, and the child's grandparents say Child Protective Services had the opportunity to stop it.
Deacon Garay, of Palestine, died on September 7, 2011. He was two years old.
Deacon's stepfather, Billy Hasel, originally told Anderson County investigators that the injuries that caused Deacon's death were the result of Deacon falling down the stairs. However, on March 31, 2014, Hasel was convicted of Deacon's capital murder and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Deacon's grandparents say they've kept quiet for years because the most important thing to them, was making sure that Hasel went to prison and could never hurt any of their grandchildren again. Now that that's happened, they're talking about one painful fact--- a CPS caseworker was told numerous times that Hasel was abusing Deacon. However, the case was closed and Deacon was left in Billy's care. About a week later, Deacon was dead.
"That's [Deacon's brother] holding him when he was born," Martha Garay, Deacon's grandmother explains, as she looks at a photo of her grandsons. "I call that falling in love. He was in love with that baby from the minute he was born," she says.
Deacon's grandparents, Martha and Gilbert Garay, say Deacon was a happy child who was dearly loved by his big brothers.
"If they could have wrapped themselves around him to protect him, they would have done it," Martha says.
Now, nearly three years after Deacon's death, the Garays are speaking out about their belief that Deacon's death could have been prevented.
"It was probably 7 or 8 weeks earlier that we'd reported to CPS about Deacon and his brother saying that Billy had hit him, and he had a fist mark on the side of his head," explains Gilbert Garay.
CPS opened an investigation into the alleged abuse. A CPS caseworker spent about six weeks interviewing the children, their doctors and other family members before closing the investigation and determining that CPS services were not needed.
However, the case files tell a different story. According to documentation, the very first time a CPS worker spoke with Deacon, Deacon said "someone hit him" leaving bumps and scrapes on his head. The case worker went on to write, "I could not understand the name that he said other than it started with a "B". That same day, Deacon's 8-year-old brother told the case worker, "Billy has hit deacon before."
"After the first investigation, they put them back in the apartment with Billy," recalls Gilbert Garay.
In the CPS worker's next interview with the children he documented, "I asked [Deacon] what hurt his head, and he said a word that sounded like 'bully.' Deacon said other words that I was unable to understand."
More documentation showed that Deacon's maternal grandfather explained to the caseworker that "bully" is Deacon's way of saying "Billy" and that Deacon's brother told the caseworker, "Deacon is scared of Billy."
"The whole family wants things changed where investigators listen to children... take what they're saying a little more to heart," says Gilbert Garay.
CPS records show Deacon's two bothers did not have any bruising or signs of neglect and their mother did not believe that Billy was hitting Deacon.
"We received a letter that he saw no signs of abuse or neglect," explains Martha Garay.
Before the case was closed, the CPS worker documented that Deacon's mother was "afraid of [Billy]" and would "cover for him in anything he does, even against the interests of the children." Deacon, his brothers, their mother and Billy lived together at a Palestine apartment complex for a matter of weeks.
"They were removed from the house for two weeks and put back in. So --in total-- a month and a half and Deacon was dead," explains Martha.
Deacon's death did give life to four other people. That life is a gift that has helped the Garays find some peace. They say a two-year-old got Deacon's lungs, a one-year-old got part of his liver and a little girl named Leah Grace got his heart.
The Garays say their hearts will always be broken for their grandson and his brothers who endured so much while they were still so young.
"It's something that's going to linger on -- for as far as I can see -- the rest of everybody's lives. It's just.. the thought is... that down the road somebody could be saved if more things were paid attention to," explains Gilbert Garay.
"It seems to me like they listen to the adults who do have something to hide and they're not listening to the children," says Martha Garay.
"We'll always miss him," she adds.
CPS says there were a few reasons for handling the case the way the did. Monday evening they released this statement:
[if gte mso 9]> This case was thoroughly reviewed after the child death occurred. After review, the department concluded photographs should have been taken of the injuries and prior medical records should have been obtained. This may have alerted the caseworker to a pattern of unusual injures to the child. Training to caseworkers in the field has since occurred to make sure photographs are taken and obtained from all sources and that all medical documentation is requested and reviewed.
The caseworker assigned to this case is no longer working for the department. They resigned in 2012.
The caseworker assigned to Deacon's case worked for CPS for less than two years. He went on medical leave soon after closing Deacon's case and then resigned. No disciplinary action was ever taken against the caseworker, though it could have been had he remained with the department.