Authorities were alerted time and again to the young mother’s unstable mental health.
First, when she turned her parents’ gas oven to high, ignited the stove burners, assembled a shrine of family photos and left their house to burn. Then, when she confessed starting the fire to police detectives while social workers interviewed her children at the Baltimore Child Abuse Center. Later, when she told a judge in the case that she’d been a patient at a psychiatric hospital.
Two years later, Jamerria Hall was out of prison and raising her young son and daughter alone. The 28-year-old mother allegedly murdered them; police found their decomposing bodies late last month. Now, questions abound.
What actions had social workers taken to ensure the children’s safety? Had the courts found Hall fit to continue raising them? Did authorities miss warning signs and chances to step in? What role did the coronavirus play in this and other cases in eliminating opportunities for children to have regular contact with pediatricians and teachers?
In Hall’s case and that of another city family, there’s a limit to the answers. The Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office is keeping some facts confidential, saying the details — including what Child Protective Services knew and when — could jeopardize the prosecutions.
While there is a record of social workers interviewing Hall’s children after the fire, it’s unknown if Child Protective Services was notified or took action.
Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott has directed city officials to examine the case for missteps.
“To identify all the different touch points where we could have intervened,” said Sunny Schnitzer, the deputy mayor for public safety. “What we’re really looking to do is identify the gaps in policy protocol and communication that can enable the tragedy to occur.”
The deaths of Hall’s son, 8-year-old Davin Thomas Jr., found bound and stabbed to death, and her daughter, 6-year-old sister Da’Neria Thomas, her body discovered in a bathtub, came four weeks after police made another horrifying discovery across the city line in Essex.
Officers stopped Nicole Johnson, 33, for speeding and, alerted by foul smells from her car, discovered the long-dead bodies of her 7-year-old niece and 5-year-old nephew stuffed in a suitcase and plastic tote.
And two months before that, 2-month-old Zorii Pitts was beaten to death by her father, according to Baltimore police. Officers wrote that Child Protective Services was alerted to abuse in the home.
“With children being at home and not in school, with children not being seen regularly by their pediatrician, it worries me that there are not eyes on children,” said Cathy Costa, who directs a team of city officials that reviews unexpected child deaths.
Cases are rare of children killed by an abusive or neglectful guardian. Baltimore’s Child Fatality Review Team studies all such cases in the city. Parents don’t want to kill their children, but stressors pile up — such as money trouble, drug abuse, mental illness — until Mom or Dad breaks.
“There’s almost always an intervention point,” Costa said.
The pandemic has let loose new stressors, too, and more children have died. The Child Fatality Review Team recorded three children killed in Baltimore by an abusive or neglectful caregiver in each of 2017, 2018 and 2019. Last year, the team counted six. In eight months of 2021, they counted four more children killed — not including the two over the line in Essex in Baltimore County.
“It has really worried me,” Costa said. “Families are disconnected from the systems that are often in the best position to intervene.”
Child Protective Services responds to reports of abuse and neglect in Baltimore. Workers have a range of options, everything from removing a child to supporting a family with parenting classes, drug treatment, money for a kid’s bed or utility bills.
Court records show Child Protective Services opened a case on Zorii Pitts more than a month before her death in May. Officers charged her father, Darius Williams, with murder; he’s denied harming the baby. An autopsy found her skull was crushed.
Child Protective Services had been called one month earlier about injuries to the child during her visit to the family doctor. It’s unclear what actions caseworkers took to try to keep the girl safe. Agency officials have said they are prohibited from discussing cases.
Similarly, it’s not clear if caseworkers took action to protect Hall’s children after she set the fire three years ago. The children were interviewed by a social worker at the Baltimore Child Abuse Center, where trained staff members talk to children on behalf of police and social services about traumatic events. It’s up to Child Protective Services to act if there’s information, from such an interview or another source, that a child is being abused.
Hall was sentenced in March 2019 to a year in prison. The children weren’t mentioned at her plea hearing, according to a video of the proceeding. She told the court that a psychiatrist treated her for anxiety and depression. Baltimore Circuit Judge Melissa Phinn ordered her to undergo a mental health evaluation and counseling, if recommended by parole and probation officers.
While state law keeps child abuse records confidential, in the case of a death, the law requires officials to release some information upon request, such as dates of reports of abuse, findings by investigators, and services provided to the abuser.
State legislators amended the confidentiality provisions after Pikesville third grader Rita Fisher died of torture and abuse at the hands of her family in 1997. The judge admonished social workers for failing to protect the child despite repeated warning signs.
However, the prosecutors can block the release of records if they think disclosure could jeopardize a case against an abuser. In Hall’s case, the office of Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby has blocked the release of any records. The mother is to stand trial on charges of murder.
“While it is an open investigation and we have not determined what, if any, previous history affects the current case, we are not in a position to disclose any information,” said Erin Murphy, chief counsel for the office.
The state’s attorney’s office has repeatedly declined requests for such records.
When Alicia and Shatika Lawson allegedly scalded their 4-year-old son in a bath two years ago and Alicia Lawson dumped his body across town, prosecutors declined to approve the release of abuse records. It’s unclear what actions, if any, Child Protective Services took to keep Malachi Lawson safe. Even after Alicia Lawson pleaded guilty last month, prosecutors would not release the records. Shatika Lawson is scheduled for trial in February.
Meanwhile, the paternal grandfather of Hall’s children blames Child Protective Services for their deaths. Theodore Thomas said he and his wife cared for the children when Hall went to prison. She’s estranged from the children’s father.
Authorities returned the children to Hall when she got out, Thomas said.
“They gave my grandchildren back to their mother after she lit the house on fire with them inside,” he said. “Why would they do that?” He declined to talk further.
Child welfare advocates say Child Protective Services is often the first to be blamed for a child’s death, but most cases never come to the attention of the agency before it’s too late. The city’s Child Fatality Review team examined 37 cases where children died or suffered near-fatal abuse between 2012 and 2015, and the team found only seven of the kids had been the subject of a Child Protective Services investigation.
On paper, a conviction of arson might not raise alarm, said Adam Rosenberg, the longtime director of the Baltimore Child Abuse Center.
“Just because mom sets fire to the house or dad fires a gun in the air doesn’t automatically equate to a child at risk,” he said. “Maybe all of us, from front-line law enforcement and prosecutors to the courts and parole and probation, need to be looking at situations where children are exposed to violence but haven’t been victims, and need to consider if there are other interventions.”
From a podcast she recorded, Hall seemed focused on a better path once released from prison last summer. In four episodes of “BMorE Charming,” she speaks of trying to start a line of T-shirts and cosmetics, reads her children a bedtime book, and explains the arson case as her “mental breakdown.”
There’s a hint of darker troubles ahead.
“I have such a big heart, that if my heart gets any type of rejection I crumble,” she says. “I would just have a meltdown. That’s something I need to work on: my anger. My anger develops my anxiety; my anxiety develops my stress; my stress triggers my depression.
“I fall into depression when I just cannot control the stress.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Jessica Anderson contributed to this article.