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State was reportedly warned about dangerous home days before infant's overdose death

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BATON ROUGE - The Department of Children and Family Services was warned about a 1-year-old's potentially dangerous living conditions days before the infant died from a fentanyl overdose, and now the child's father has seemingly disappeared. 

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The Baton Rouge Police Department said the child, J'ahrei Paul, was dropped off by family at a hospital sometime Monday, where the infant was pronounced dead. 

On Friday, the East Baton Rouge coroner said Paul died from "acute fentanyl toxicity," but it was still unclear how the drug ended up in his system. The Baton Rouge Police Department is investigating the case, but there were still no arrests as of Friday afternoon.

The child's mother, Ja'Mira Paul, tells WBRZ she was jailed in Texas for marijuana possession and other charges at the time of her son's death.

After J'ahrei died, she said she got a call from someone at DCFS while she was in jail saying there were reports she was using drugs around her kids and that the agency had been trying to track her down for a week. She explained that she had been in a Texas jail for months.

"I got a call on the first, my baby died on Halloween," Paul said. "When they called me, they said they were looking for me a week prior because they had a pending case on me, about me doing drugs around my kids when I was in jail in Texas."

Paul said she took a plea deal this past week so that she could get back to Louisiana for her son's funeral.

"Words just can't explain," Paul said. "I can't do nothing to get my baby back. I would give my life to get his back."

She claims the infant's father, Charles Lee, was watching J'ahrei on Halloween, the day the 1-year-old died. According to her, J'ahrei's grandmother got a call from Lee after the boy fell ill, and the grandmother's boyfriend rushed to Lee's apartment to pick up J'ahrei and take him to a hospital. 

After the infant died, family says Lee left Paul's other two children with their aunt and hasn't been seen since. Paul says DCFS took the kids from her sister Wednesday, telling her she's not a certified foster.

Sources tell WBRZ that DCFS had an open investigation related to the infant prior to his death, but the agency would not say anything about it this week.

Friday night, police told WBRZ they are looking to question more family members before making an arrest.

"There should be a clear line of communication between DCFS and the Louisiana Legislature, but if we look at history, DCFS has had a history of concealing information and concealing facts. So, while it’s unfortunate, I’m not surprised," Rep. Jason Hughes said.

Over the past several months, numerous sources have told WBRZ that DCFS is understaffed and cannot handle its caseload, and WBRZ's Chief Investigator Chris Nakamoto learned Friday that 70 workers have left in recent months.

The exodus of state workers came after another high-profile case where a toddler died from swallowing fentanyl while living at a drug-filled home. Officials say that child, 2-year-old Mitchell Robinson III, had two near-death experiences that triggered three separate complaints to DCFS prior to his death. 

Despite the warnings, Robinson was left in his mother's care and died in June from a third fentanyl overdose, triggering his mom's arrest and kicking off an investigation into what went wrong at DCFS. 

DCFS issued a statement Saturday, explaining how Paul's case fell through the cracks at the organization. DCFS said the case worker who was originally assigned to Paul's case resigned, the person who it was re-assigned to was out sick for the weekend. By the time they got back to work Monday the child was dead. 

The department put out the following statement Saturday:

DCFS received a report to the child abuse hotline on October 21, 2022, by an anonymous reporter alleging that the mother was using marijuana in the presence of her children, including on October 20, 2022. On October 21, 2022, the case was immediately assigned to a supervisor who was recently reassigned to caseworker duties to help with the high influx of cases. Within 3 days of this assignment she put in her resignation, but continued to work for another 5 days to complete case activities. Her last day was Sunday, October 30, 2022. On Friday, October 28, 2022 she sent an email to her manager advising of no contact on this case. The manager was on sick leave on Friday the 28th, and returned to work on Monday, October 31. After testifying in court proceedings, she returned to the office and began reviewing emails and reassigning cases. In the process of doing this, she received notification that J’ahrei died.

DCFS previously investigated the mother of J’ahrei Paul due to marijuana use during her pregnancies. Louisiana law requires the Department of Children and Family Services to initiate an investigation of neglect when a newborn is exposed to any illegal substance or other substance used in an unlawful manner. There were no indications of other drug use, and no other substances were discovered in standard meconium tests. The agency initiated investigations according to state law, and there were never any concerns reported by medical professionals regarding the care of her children. There were never any other allegations or reports of abuse and neglect on these children.

During our investigation, the Agency learned that the mother was incarcerated in Texas during the time of this anonymous report and had been since at least August 2022. J’ahrei’s mother and father were not residing together prior to her incarceration. Case notes indicate that the mother made arrangements for the children to reside with their father while she was incarcerated. The agency never received any reports alleging abuse or neglect by J’ahrei’s father; this includes any concerns related to substance use.

It was learned through investigation that the children were residing with their father at the time of the intake. The father of J’ahrei had no previous investigations as a perpetrator of abuse and/or neglect. Since this time, the other three children have been removed and placed in the custody of the department pending the completion of the investigation.

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