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KARE 11 Investigates: Red flags ignored, warnings disregarded, a boy murdered

Hundreds of emails, texts and case reports obtained by KARE 11 reveal child protection’s myriad of failures before 6-year-old Eli Hart was murdered by his mother.

Brandon Stahl (KARE11), A.J. Lagoe, Steve Eckert

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Published: 12:29 PM CDT May 18, 2023
Updated: 9:52 AM CDT May 30, 2023

Sometime on the morning of May 20, 2022, Julissa Thaler pointed a shotgun at 6-year-old Eli Hart as her helpless son faced her, strapped into his car seat.

She repeatedly fired, then stuffed the boy’s mangled body in her trunk.

Later that day, video shows she calmly ate pizza as police interrogated her.

Eli’s murder was as shocking as it was preventable.

Only 10 days earlier, Dakota County had closed a child protection case against Thaler, one in which records show she repeatedly lied to caseworkers, filed false court claims, failed drug tests, committed crimes and even stalked the boy’s foster parents.

The revelations come from hundreds of pages of emails between child protection workers, case worker notes, police reports, and court transcripts obtained by KARE 11.

Credit: KARE 11

“This is one of the most shocking child fatalities, one of the most shocking failures of child protection I’ve seen in many decades of working in child welfare,” said Dee Wilson, who reviewed the records for KARE 11.

Wilson’s experience includes serving as the director of Child Welfare for the national nonprofit Casey Family Programs. He now works as a consultant.

For his safety, Eli had been removed from his mother’s care in January 2021 after she had a series of mental health breakdowns. Despite a wave of warning flags, officials returned Eli to his mother 11 months later for what’s known as a Trial Home Visit.

“There was absolutely no reason, no basis, for returning this child to this mother or continuing the placement once it was obvious she was not going to follow through on the case plan,” Wilson said.

Once back in his mother’s care, for months Eli’s caseworkers failed to act as abuse and neglect reports continued to flood into the county, a KARE 11 investigation has found.

Eli’s foster mother, Nikita Kronberg, was one of many of Eli’s caregivers who warned Child Protection Services.

“I truly believe if CPS had done their job and protected Eli he would still be here today,” she said.

Watch the full story Thursday at 10 p.m. on KARE 11.

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