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Questions of how slain boy wound up in care of suspect

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Globe Staff / June 25, 2009
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This story was reported by Patricia Wen and John Ellement of the Globe staff and Globe correspondent Matt Collette. It was written by Wen.

WORCESTER - Seven-year-old Nathaniel Turner had attended church nearly every Sunday in a rural Alabama city where he lived with the grandmother he called Mama. He had looked forward to a religious summer camp this month with friends, when his grandmother told him he had to go off to Central Massachusetts to stay with his biological father, who she believed had won a court order for temporary custody.

Yesterday, Nathaniel was to be taken off life support at UMass Memorial Medical Center, deemed by doctors to be clinically dead after a Father’s Day beating, allegedly by his 36-year-old father, Leslie Schuler, who police say had a lengthy criminal record.

His grandmother, who flew up from Alabama, was at his hospital bedside, along with his mother. His father has been charged with murder.

“We go from a case of assault and battery and serious bodily injury to a child, to a homicide investigation,’’ said Worcester District Attorney Joseph D. Early Jr.

A Juvenile Court judge’s decision yesterday paved the way to ending life support. The judge ruled that legal questions about removing life support were not applicable, because doctors had already declared the child brain dead.

The case has raised questions about just how the boy ended up in the care of a father who was a stranger to him. Court officials yesterday said they have yet to uncover any judge’s orders giving the father visitation or custody for the summer.

The only existing court order appears to give custody to the biological mother, Alicia Taylor. However, due to the mother’s mental problems, the maternal grandmother, Christine Taylor, cared for the boy, records show. Her legal guardianship of him apparently lapsed about four years ago.

A spokesman for the state’s child-protection agency has declined to say if it was involved with the family before it took legal custody of the boy this week after his devastating brain injuries. Department of Children and Families spokeswoman Alison Goodwin said they are required by law to check the criminal backgrounds of any caretakers of children involved with the agency.

Nathaniel’s father had a sporadic financial role in the boy’s life. After a paternity test in Massachusetts in 2004, a judge imposed child support payments. It remains unclear who received those payments, however, and the boy and his grandmother moved from Worcester to her rural hometown of Eufaula, Ala., where he attended a primary school.

According to court records, Schuler sought visitation last year because he wanted to build a paternal bond with his son.

“I would like a chance to become the child’s father, not just a paycheck once a week,’’ Schuler wrote. “I have not been given an opportunity to meet the child and build a relationship. No visitation.’’

The grandmother apparently understood that a Massachusetts judge had issued a court order allowing the boy to live this summer with his father, though it is unclear what she was told and by whom, said her aunt, Gardeen Carter, who lives in Alabama.

Probate and Family Court Chief Justice Paula M. Carey said yesterday that she reviewed the entire case file and concluded that the probate courts did not grant Schuler either visitation rights or custody.

“There is nothing in our file anywhere that shows that Dad was given visitation,’’ Carey said.

While the father asked for visitation, the mother asked for an increase in child support. Court records show that no action was taken until May 20, when Probate and Family Court Judge Susan D. Ricci terminated Schuler’s child support obligation, retroactive to March 2008, and dismissed the father’s request for visitation. That happened after the judge apparently learned through a Department of Revenue attorney that the mother did not have physical custody of her son.

While the legal issues were being battled, Nathaniel had been looking forward to going to a summer camp program this month with his church and had even sold patriotic magnets to raise money for the trip.

“He was supposed to go to summer camp with us this month, but then the issue came up with the dad,’’ said Steve Montgomery, pastor of the Grace Independent Baptist Church in Eufala. “I heard it was a custody issue.’’

Montgomery said the camp leaders were disappointed to hear the bright, energetic young boy was not going with them. Carter said the boy was diagnosed with attention-deficit disorder, which was managed well with medication.

Carter also said Nathaniel’s grandmother did not get in the way of the boy’s trip to Massachusetts, thinking a court order existed.

“She didn’t want to get tied in a big mess with it, so she went along,’’ Carter said.

Since Nathaniel began living with his father in Worcester, he experienced chronic emotional and physical abuse, apparently as part of escalating disciplinary punishments, law enforcement authorities said. Some time on Sunday, the boy suffered severe injuries when his head was slammed into a bedroom wall so hard that the wall was dented, according to authorities.

On Monday, the father and his girlfriend, Tiffany Hyman, 28, brought the boy, unconscious and bruised, to a local hospital. Shortly thereafter, he was placed on life support and, at 4:10 p.m. on Tuesday, declared brain dead by a doctor. Another independent medical expert confirmed that he was brain dead.

On Tuesday, before the boy was declared clinically dead, the father was charged with multiple counts of assault and battery and held on $250,000 cash bail. His girlfriend was also charged with assault and battery in failing to protect the boy and held on $50,000 bail.

Yesterday’s court hearing to decide whether to remove Nathaniel’s life support was open to the public, a departure from past practice that reflects a new state law requiring life-support matters involving certain children in state custody to be debated openly.

Dr. Scot Bateman, chief of pediatric critical care at UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester, said the child’s brain injuries were so traumatic that no blood could enter his brain.

“At this point, we either turn the ventilator off, or, if you’re interested in organ donation, we can discuss this with the New England Organ Bank,’’ he said.

Shortly after 5 p.m. yesterday, Juvenile Court Judge Carol A. Erskine made her ruling paving the way for life support to end.

The grandmother and mother, who were in court, joined other relatives who left through a side door. They left for the hospital to be at the child’s bedside when the ventilator was detached.

Nataniel Turner, 7 Nataniel Turner, 7