Former foster dad, family mourn death of boy, 10, in foster care

Dakota Levi Stevens loved doing stuff in nature, said his former foster dad, Hayden Hetzel.

A picture taken in the fall, during the week or so after Dakota returned to Hetzel’s household after being a foster child there from 2019 to 2021, shows him holding a snail. In another one, the boy, 10, clasped a giant mushroom.

“He was always in the backyard looking for bugs and stuff,” Hetzel said.

Hetzel tried twice to adopt Dakota. The first time, things fell through when Dakota’s biological family protested but in the fall, when Hetzel fast-tracked the process with the Indiana Department of Child Services, he said everyone had come together and wanted what was best for the boy.

Dakota was enrolled in third grade at an elementary school in Hammond, where Hetzel lives, and had been reconnected with his previous therapists. One night, Hetzel said, DCS texted him and said a Lake County magistrate had issued an order to remove Dakota from the home. Dakota was removed from the home immediately.

“He didn’t understand why,” Hetzel said, adding he wasn’t sure, either, but maybe it was because of the past failed adoption.

Now, Hetzel and Dakota’s biological family are trying to put together the pieces of how he died Saturday after a stay at a Liberty Township foster home. They believe he was there less than a week.

The Porter County Sheriff’s Office has said little about the case, other than a short statement released Tuesday night. That said the department’s detective bureau was investigating the death of a 10-year-old.

Around 2:37 p.m. April 25, patrol officers were dispatched to a residence in the 200 block of Falcon Way in Liberty Township for a medical emergency, according to a Tuesday night release from Sgt. Ben McFalls, public information officer for the sheriff’s office.

Emergency Medical Services transported the child to the hospital for treatment but the child later died, McFalls said.

Hetzel and Dakota’s cousin, Logan Mills, confirmed Dakota was initially taken to Northwest Health-Porter before being transported via helicopter to South Bend Memorial Hospital. He was removed from life support on Saturday, which they found out indirectly on Sunday. DCS did not contact the family about Dakota’s death or about removing him from life support, Mills said, because Dakota was a ward of the state.

St. Joseph County Coroner Patricia Jordan was not able to confirm or provide details about Dakota’s death on Monday and said results of state-mandated autopsy, because Dakota is a minor, would not be available for up to two months. The sheriff’s department did not release additional information on Wednesday.

“Our entire staff is heartbroken by this news. DCS works with stakeholders and partners across the state to investigate the death of a child any time there is suspected abuse or neglect and will take the appropriate action,” Brian Heinemann, deputy director of communications for DCS, said in an email Wednesday afternoon.

Foster parents must complete intensive training and education to achieve licensure, which is reexamined each year to ensure the foster family continues to meet DCS requirements, including additional training each year to maintain this license.

“DCS policy also addresses termination of licensure, which includes circumstances where a foster parent or member of the household has been substantiated for abuse or neglect,” he said.

Hetzel tried to save Dakota.

“We tried multiple times and they took him from us,” he said of DCS. “He deserves justice.”

Mills and Hetzel said Dakota and a younger sister were removed from their biological parents’ home because of their reported drug use. Their father died and their mother eventually relinquished parental rights.

“I was a part of his life as soon as he was born,” said Mills, who lives in Gary.

After Dakota and his sister were moved between family and multiple foster homes, the two were split up and his sister was eventually adopted. Dakota also was in and out of a mental health facility for children, according to Mills and Hetzel, who believe he may have been in that facility before he was moved to the foster home in Liberty Township.

Dakota stopped breathing after he was reportedly disciplined in the front yard of the Liberty Township home by his foster mother, according to Mills and Hetzel. Neighbors, including a firefighter, administered CPR until paramedics arrived and got Dakota breathing again.

Mills said Dakota remained on life support until Saturday to monitor his brain activity. DCS didn’t contact family members before removing him from life support.

“They said there was no family to make a decision,” said Mills.

Family members have reached out to DCS asking if they could have Dakota’s body, Mills said, and the state agency said no.

“They said because his parents lost their rights and he was a ward of the state, we had no rights to his body,” he said, adding Dakota’s family was initially told they couldn’t attend his funeral.

That changed when Dakota’s supporters started flooding social media on Tuesday with posts about his death.

“Now we’re cleared to finally attend the funeral,” he said, adding it’s on Monday at Geisen Funeral Home in Crown Point.

Dakota’s family tried repeatedly to keep custody of him, Mills said, until a family member’s bid to adopt him in late 2021. The family member had been serving as a foster parent but a judge denied the adoption.

The judge, according to Mills, “didn’t want Dakota placed with anyone from Dakota’s biological family, that we were not fit to care for him, no matter who it was.”

The family also stopped receiving updates about Dakota from DCS at some point, Mills said, though Dakota was listed on the agency’s adoption website until the post was taken down the day after he died. A screenshot of the post, provided by Mills, shows a picture of Dakota with a toothy grin and short hair, in a dark winter jacket.

It says Dakota “is smart and observant, he loves learning new things! His favorite thing to do is playing outside hunting for bugs and snakes!”

“He was such a smart kid,” Mills said. “He was 10 with an IQ of almost 130.”

Hetzel has Dakota’s initials and those of his younger sister tattooed on his ankle, an action he took a few years ago when he was on the cusp of adopting them both. He isn’t surprised DCS failed Dakota and said the system has to do better.

“This isn’t going to go under cover,” he said. “This is going to get out there because we all deserve a proper answer.”