Kin: System failed NJ toddler found dead in creek

AP News
Posted: Nov 30, 2011 4:13 PM
Kin: System failed NJ toddler found dead in creek

Arthur Morgan III charmed his girlfriend's family by dancing around the room with her, attending her younger sister's basketball games, even tattooing his girlfriend's face on his chest. But that began to change once their daughter was born.

He would insist that no one else could touch his baby and wouldn't let the child's mother, Imani Benton, train for work, her family said.

As their relationship deteriorated, both sides went to court against the other. But nothing that New Jersey's judges or child protection system did prevented the death of 2-year-old Tierra Morgan-Glover, whose body was found partially submerged in a park creek last week, still strapped into her car seat.

In addition to the criminal case against Morgan, who was arrested Tuesday in San Diego on murder charges after fleeing cross-country, a separate investigation is under way into whether the state could have done more to help prevent the tragedy.

"She tried to get help and nobody helped her," Michelle Simmons, the dead child's maternal grandmother, told The Associated Press on Wednesday. "That was so wrong. We feel they did fail her."

The toddler's body was found Nov. 22 in Shark River Park in Wall Township, N.J., about 20 miles north of her home in Lakehurst. Her cause of death was listed as "homicidal violence, including submersion in water."

The New Jersey Department of Children and Families had been involved in their family on and off for more than a year, said Allison Blake, commissioner of the department.

She said her department "shares the community's sense of loss over the tragic death of Tierra Morgan. As the department normally does, we have initiated a case record review of our history with Tierra and her family to ensure we did everything possible and to identify any instances for improvement."

A review board set up by the department to examine cases in which a child is killed or severely injured also will investigate.

Morgan, who was in custody Wednesday awaiting extradition proceedings, had been the subject of a coast-to-coast manhunt and had been featured on the website of "America's Most Wanted" after the child's body was found. He is due in a San Diego courtroom Thursday morning; it was not immediately clear whether he had a lawyer.

Benton called police after Morgan failed to return the girl Nov. 21, the day of his first visit with his daughter in weeks.

Benton and Morgan had a tumultuous relationship, relatives said. And Benton at least twice sought refuge for herself and her daughter in shelters for victims of domestic violence _ but eventually moved back to her mother's home after each stay.

"Arthur wanted to see the baby and we let him come," Simmons said. "Then he ended up staying here with Imani. We figured it was safe because we were all here and could keep an eye on him."

When they first started dating several years ago, Morgan charmed Benton's family, according to her younger sister, 16-year-old Breonie Van Berkle.

"I really connected with him," she said. "He would make dinner, he would dance around the house with Imani. It felt like I had another brother to talk to, to help me play basketball. He would come to my games. I never thought he could be a killer."

Simmons and Van Berkle both said Morgan appeared to truly love his daughter, who loved him right back.

Morgan once drew a pencil sketch of Benton in profile. He liked it so much he got it tattooed on his chest _ but kept it hidden for nearly a year, Simmons said.

Their relationship began to sour about six months after Tierra was born, Van Berkle said.

"He got real strange, saying, `No one can touch my baby!'" she said.

Morgan would fight with Benton, once choking her so badly she lost consciousness, Simmons said.

When Benton began training to become a nurse in July, Morgan disapproved and stopped paying for the day care she needed to watch Tierra while she studied. Simmons said she altered her work schedule so she could watch the baby while Benton attended classes.

"He took Imani's car and sold it," Simmons said. "Now she had no way to get to school. That's when I told him he had to leave. He cut my tires, turned the water on in my house and let it run all day so my bill would be high, little devious things like that."

State child welfare authorities first got involved between the two on Oct. 29, 2010, when they received a report of violence between Tierra's parents.

Blake, the child welfare commissioner, said that Benton won a temporary restraining order against Morgan, but that it was dropped when the court determined there was not sufficient evidence to conclude domestic violence occurred.

Despite the court's ruling, the agency's Division of Youth and Family Services provided services to both parents, including group counseling, parenting classes, and educational classes.

Blake said that they also offered Morgan parenting classes and a substance abuse evaluation, but that he refused. The allegations of abuse and neglect were determined to be unfounded, and the case was closed on Feb. 25, 2011, she said.

Morgan contacted child welfare authorities July 1, expressing concern over the environment in Simmons' Lakehurst home. The agency investigated, determined his claims were unfounded and closed the case a month later.

They investigated again Sept. 23 about an allegation of domestic violence between Benton and her brother that led her to move out with Tierra. The child welfare division interviewed Simmons and Benton's brother, who both denied the allegations. Benton herself did not ask for services from the agency, and the case was closed Oct. 17.

She moved to a domestic violence shelter but told Morgan where it was located. He made threatening calls to the shelter, Simmons said, leading officials there to move Benton and the child again.

On Nov. 9, Morgan again contacted the agency, saying he did not know where Benton and his daughter were staying. He made accusations against his girlfriend's parenting abilities that were deemed by the agency to be untrue. They determined the child was safe where she was.

During the week Morgan was at large, Benton's family was under police guard, fearful he would return to harm them. Benton stayed at a friend's house, sleeping in the same bed, she was so afraid at night.

Steve Jurman, supervising deputy at the U.S. Marshals Service office in San Diego, said his office got a tip from New Jersey authorities on Tuesday that Morgan might be at a home there. Marshals conducted surveillance for most of the day. Morgan was then spotted on the home's back porch and, after a brief period where it appeared he might try to flee, was taken into custody.

Simmons said her family learned about the arrest Tuesday night.

"It was a relief. Everybody could sleep. We all were starting to be fearful of him," she said. "We want to know why he did what he did to that baby."


Associated Press writers Geoff Mulvihill in Haddonfield, N.J., and Julie Watson in San Diego contributed to this report.