Danielle Camilli Burlington County Times
WILLINGBORO - When Collins Bulluck was just 6 weeks old, he was taken from his mother after the state found she was neglecting his medical needs.
The Division of Youth and Family Services removed the baby from his home and placed him in foster care. His mother, Tia Welles, underwent services and, after nine months, was reunited with the child.
Less than a year later, before Collins turned 2, he was dead. And Welles would be charged with beating him to death in their Willingboro home.
This week, she pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder and endangering the welfare of a child in the death of her son. She remains in Burlington County Jail in Mount Holly on $750,000 bail.
In court, officials said Welles had a significant family history of involvement with DYFS that included about 1,000 pages of records. The Burlington County Times has learned that the history includes an allegation of abuse just five weeks before Collins' Sept. 11, 2009, death.
DYFS, the agency charged with protecting the state's most vulnerable from abuse and neglect, received an allegation Aug. 1, 2009, that Collins and two siblings "had injuries that could be consistent with abuse."
But that report of abuse was "unfounded," according to DYFS' records. An agency spokeswoman said that "this is not information we can provide, by the law," but that the agency does investigate all allegations. The children remained with their mother while DYFS left the case open and continued to monitor the family.
A caseworker had contact with Collins about three weeks before his mother is alleged to have killed him, but did not seek to have the toddler or his siblings removed from Welles' care.
The children remained, and on Sept. 10 emergency crews were called to Ridgeview Place on a report of an unresponsive child.
Authorities soon learned the child was Collins. With the boy dead and his mother under investigation, four surviving siblings, all under age 6, were removed from the Willingboro townhouse and placed in foster care.
A sixth child, believed to be a newborn, is not accounted for in the DYFS records provided to the BCT. An agency spokeswoman said she could not release any information about the child.
After Welles' arrest Christmas Eve, she told a judge all her children were placed in foster care. DYFS spokeswoman Lauren Kidd said confidentiality prohibited the agency from releasing their current status.
Kidd did provide a 1 1/2-page summary of Welles' 1,000-page case history with DYFS. The agency is required by law under the Comprehensive Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act to provide certain information after a child fatality or near fatality that would otherwise be confidential. But the report does not provide specifics about allegations or details of the investigations the agency conducted to determine whether there was abuse or neglect.
While the report lists services provided, it does not detail at what point in the history that services were offered or court-ordered or whether the family complied.
Kidd said by law DYFS cannot release the information.
The report generated by Collins' death outlines a history of abuse and neglect allegations that date from 2003, about the time his oldest sibling was born.
Nine allegations were considered "unfounded" from 2003 to January 2008. But DYFS has had an open case on Welles and her children since November 2005, according to the report.
The unfounded abuse included allegations of hitting a baby in 2004; domestic violence that put children at risk of harm in 2005; and abuse by a child's father in 2006.
In 2006, the Burlington West office of DYFS investigated an allegation that a child had died as a result of neglect by the child's father. The death was ruled sudden infant death syndrome, according to DYFS. At that time, the agency performed a child-welfare assessment and referred Welles and the father to substance abuse evaluations and parenting classes. The case remained open for other support services and supervision, according to DYFS records.
Supervision includes visits by caseworkers to monitor a family's progress, problems and changing circumstances.
In 2007 and 2008, there were again unfounded allegations of neglect.
DYFS substantiated only two allegations against Welles. The first was when Collins was a newborn and the agency placed him in foster care for medical neglect. The second was when he died of multiple injuries. "The death of a child at the hands of a caregiver is a truly horrific tragedy. Any time a child dies due to abuse or neglect, we all feel and suffer the loss deeply," Kidd said when asked if, in light of Collins' death, DYFS had handled the case appropriately.
"As we do with all child deaths due to suspected abuse or neglect, we investigate the circumstances around the death and review our entire history and interaction with the family, if there was a history."
She could not specify what services Welles or her children were receiving or how often a caseworker was in contact with the family. The last contact a caseworker from DYFS' Camden North office had with Collins, according to the report, was Aug. 20, 2009, about three weeks before his death.
Kidd said she could not provide any additional information than what was in the report on how the agency worked to protect Collins and his siblings after the Aug. 1 allegation and Aug. 20 visit. Nothing in DYFS' records shows that the family's case was turned over to the local Burlington County DYFS office when the family was living in Willingboro.
Over the years, Welles and/or her children received individual counseling, in-house visiting nurse checks, miscellaneous emergency expenses, housing/placement assistance and medical transport services, according to the report.