Her name was Heaven Watkins. And her tragic death one year ago this week may be leading to changes in the way child protection cases are handled nationwide
“By breaking down barriers to information, we can prevent children like Heaven from slipping thru the cracks,” said Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor.
Rep. Scott is co-sponsor of a bipartisan bill that calls for the creation of an “Interstate Data Exchange” to share child abuse information across state lines in hopes of protecting children like Heaven. The 11-year-old girl died in Virginia in the area Scott represents.
But Heaven’s history of hell actually began years ago here in Minnesota.
“I cannot imagine what she had to go through,” her aunt Sheronda Orridge told KARE 11.
Records show Ramsey County Child Protection removed her from her mother’s home in 2015 after reports of abuse and neglect. But they returned her a year and a half later over the objection of relatives, including Orridge.
“I said Heaven’s not going to live long if you send her back there and the blood’s going to be on your hands,” Orridge remembers telling officials.
Heaven’s mother moved her from Minnesota to Virginia. That’s where the girl’s hand was burned so badly in February 2018, that she was hospitalized and had skin grafts.
But Child Protections authorities in Virginia didn’t intervene – apparently unaware of her history in Minnesota.
Four month later, Heaven was beaten to death.
KARE 11 and our TEGNA sister station WVEC in Virginia investigated the circumstances surrounding the girl’s death – and obtained autopsy and forensic reports documenting the torture she endured.
WATCH ORIGINAL INVESTIGATION: The life and death of Heaven
Official reports indicate “lethal blunt force injuries to the head and torso” killed her.
Before the fatal blows, though, experts identified there were 23 broken bones “in various stages of healing” from at least “four previous traumatic events.”
It was a “classic hallmark of child abuse” wrote Tal Simmons, a forensic anthropologist at Virginia Commonwealth University. She concluded some of the injuries may have dated back years.
Experts say Heaven’s death raises question about whether child protection workers in two states missing clear warnings.
In the wake of her death, Congress is moving forward with a plan to create a national database of child abuse cases to help protect children who move state-to-state. It would make it easier for investigators to check for earlier abuse reports in other locations.
“Had this data exchange system been in place last year it is likely that we would have prevented the tragic death of Heaven Watkins.” Rep. Scott said as the committee he chairs approved the bill.
Heaven’s mother Latoya Smith has pleaded guilty to felony homicide and is awaiting sentencing. Her boyfriend Demont Harris is awaiting trial.
Saturday will mark the one-year anniversary of Heaven’s death.
In Minnesota, her family and friends plan to release balloons in her memory.
Meanwhile Heaven’s grandmother told KARE 11 she is haunted by a question the little girl asked before moving to Virginia.
“You gonna let somebody kill me?” Raola Watkins remembers Heaven asking one day. “No, I’m not. I’m not going to let no one kill you.”