Mourners remember Dakota Levi Stevens for his smile, creativity

Through their tears, Dakota Levi Stevens’ family and loved ones talked about a creative, bright boy who loved bugs and frogs and Legos, whose smile was incomparable and who was likely to teach any adult he interacted with more than they could ever teach him.

Dakota, 10, affectionately referred to as Levi by his family, was remembered during a private funeral service Monday at Geisen Funeral Home in Crown Point.

“Despite all the hardships he went through, Levi was truly optimistic,” said Jamie Constant, the pastor who led the memorial service.

Dakota died two days after what police have called a “medical emergency” on April 25 at the foster home in the 200 block of Falcon Way in Liberty Township where family and his former foster father believe he had been for less than a week.

More than 100 mourners filled the funeral home Monday morning, where an inflatable shark outside greeted those who attended, a nod to another one of his favorite creatures. Thomas the Tank Engine cars sat on tables in the funeral home along with pictures of him as a baby, and two large Lego replicas flanked his blue casket.

“He didn’t deserve this. He was better than a lot of people here,” Dakota’s aunt, Nicole Rubalcava, who also works at Geisen, said during his funeral. “Even if he battled stuff, this kid’s heart truly was not made for this world. He taught me so much, he truly did, and I didn’t think a kid could teach you stuff like that.”

Logan Mills, Dakota’s cousin, and his former longtime foster father, Hayden Hetzel, have 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. His sister was later adopted.

The Porter County Sheriff’s Office has released few details about the investigation and an autopsy report is not expected for several weeks, according to the St. Joseph County Coroner’s Office. The sheriff’s detective bureau is investigating.

Mourners wore white T-shirts with Dakota’s picture on the front with “Forever 10.” The back of the shirts said, “Loved beyond words, missed beyond measure.”

Displays plastered with pictures of Dakota lined the memorial chapel, depicting a boy whose large eyes were sometimes framed behind black-rimmed glasses. One display featured Dakota’s schoolwork, including something on cicadas, which Dakota dubbed the “best bug in the world.”

A yellow woven potholder hung from the school display, which also included an essay by Dakota called “I’m feeling 22” and dated Feb. 22, 2022.

“When I am 22, I will live with Mrs. Tarnowski, my favorite teacher I love so much. I will be tall. I will have 100,000 frogs, a big leopard shark, 500 fish, 2 dogs and 1 cat. That’s what I want to be like when I’m 22 years old.”

Amber Tarnowski, Dakota’s elementary school teacher during the 2021-2022 school year when he was in second grade in the Duneland schools, told those gathered for the funeral that the boy arrived in her classroom with no records or data. She only knew he was placed with a foster family after a traumatic experience.

“I learned quickly that Dakota was extraordinary,” she said of the boy who she said had “big emotions” and became her heart and soul that school year.

Dakota was always about fairness and respect, Tarnowski said, and while she was teaching him algebra, he was teaching everybody patience.

Tarnowski never let him use his past as an excuse but told him he could talk to her about it.

“I’ve heard many bad things about what happened to this child. He told me all of it, but it was never about his family,” she said. “Dakota was his own hero each day and the reason for that was the foundation from his family.”

Dakota helped Tarnowski accept traumatic experiences in her life, too.

“I just need you to know he loved you, too, every single day,” she said.

Outside the funeral home before the service, Melaina Blanchard of Highland wept as she said Dakota was her foster son for more than two years. Blanchard is Hetzel’s former girlfriend. Dakota first stayed with the couple in their Hammond home from 2019 to 2021, and again for a couple of weeks in November 2022.

“He was so kind. He had a beautiful laugh and a beautiful smile,” she said, adding Dakota loved to dance.

Dakota was 5 when he arrived as a foster child at Hetzel and Blanchard’s home.

“He was just a baby but his personality showed from the day we got him,” Blanchard said. “Even all the trauma he’d been through, he still managed to see the good in things. He was troubled, he was hurt, but his soul was beautiful.”

A spokeswoman with the Department of Child Services has said that the Liberty Township foster parent where Dakota was staying before his death “has been licensed since 2017 and was in good standing, having completed the required training and education required to achieve and maintain licensure,”

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, a department spokesman has said in an email.

“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.

Rubalcava, Dakota’s aunt, said the boy stayed with her for a time and that three days before he left her care, she sat him on her lap and asked him for a promise.

“Promise when you make it out of this system, I just want you to tell me everything you make with your Legos,” she told him, and they touched thumbs to seal the promise.

Rubalcava found out while she was at work that Dakota had died, and cried in her car on the way home.

“He came back to me,” she told fellow mourners. “He made it out of the system.”