At a tearful hearing yesterday in which lawyers excoriated the child welfare system for being neglectful, a Baltimore mother of five was sentenced to 20 years in prison for killing her 5-year-old son with scalding bath water earlier this year.
"I wasn't trying to hurt nobody," Sheila Avery, 24, told city Circuit Judge Evelyn Omega Cannon before she was sentenced. "I can't believe I'm going to jail for not checking the water."
Avery pleaded guilty to one count of child abuse last month, two days after she delivered her youngest child, Heaven.
The son she was accused of killing, Travon Morris, had been taken away from her by the state for about three years. He was back in Avery's care for less than a month when she forced him into the searing water on Jan. 5, prosecutors said.
Travon was in the hospital about six weeks before his organs shut down in February, causing his death, said Assistant State's Attorney Julie Drake, Chief of the Felony Family Violence Division. He had second- and third-degree burns over 50 percent of his body.
"We can only imagine the pain this child suffered," said Drake, who prosecuted the case. "I have no doubt the defendant is not the only culpable party," he said.
"The Department of Social Services and the juvenile court also played a significant role," Drake said. "The child was repeatedly returned to the defendant. There was no follow-up by DSS."
Defense attorney Russell A. Neverdon Sr. said his client should not have been caring for children, and he called her a "powder keg ready to explode."
This is the second time this summer Baltimore's child welfare system has been called into question over the killing of a child.
Last month, City Council members held a hearing seeking answers in the case of Ciara Jobes -- the 15-year-old girl who was starved and beaten to death last year.
In Travon's case, he was taken from Avery when he was 10 months old because she was a neglectful mother, Neverdon said.
The boy was returned to her in December last year after Avery had completed three parent classes.
During the three years he was in the custody of the state, Travon was placed in a foster home with Denise Johnson, who said she wanted to keep the boy.
She described him yesterday as an energetic child who liked running and going to church. Johnson tearfully testified that she loves Travon and misses him.
She called the Department of Social Services in the last weeks of Travon's life to report that she heard he was being abused by his mother, Johnson said.
But social service workers would not investigate, Johnson said, and told her she had to see the abuse in order to make a report.
"I said to DSS, 'Don't just throw him back in there with her,'" Johnson said. "Get her some help."
Nevertheless, she said, "We expect a person who reports to have firsthand knowledge."
She added that it is the courts, not social workers, who decide where a child is placed.
Neverdon, Avery's lawyer, also wept during the emotional hearing yesterday.
"She needs help," he said, explaining that his client suffers from lead paint poisoning. "I don't want to see her thrown in jail."
Neverdon said Avery was taken away from her own mother and raised by her grandmother.
He described his client as an "underperformer" and said she was overwhelmed with motherhood.
"I don't believe in my heart there was malice," Neverdon said. "Just terrible parenting skills and terrible neglect. She was not properly educated on use of birth control or how to raise children."
He also blamed the child welfare system for allowing Travon to go back to Avery.
"The ball was dropped," Neverdon said. "A light bulb should have gone off in someone's head. Someone should have stepped in and said, 'This is not right.'"
Avery spoke at yesterday's hearing for several minutes, saying she still does not believe her son is gone.
She said she completed several parent classes, and she admitted to using corporal punishment.
"They do say you can discipline a child with a spanking if you've tried everything else," she said. "I hit him with a belt because he acted like he didn't have no fear."
Avery's other children are being cared for by relatives.
Cannon -- who sentenced Avery to 30 years in prison but suspended 10 of them -- said she wanted to be sure Avery receives treatment while she is imprisoned.
The judge asked Neverdon to find out what counseling options are available for Avery and report back to the court.
"This is not a case of setting out to kill a child," Cannon said. "But it is a case in which a child died in a horrible way.
In the seconds before she was sentenced, Cannon asked Avery if she had anything else to say.
"The criminal justice system sucks," Avery responded.