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Boy's aunt remembers 'red flags'

Before leaving for Florida, Alex Boucher told his aunt that Jim Curtis had punched him, she says.

By CARY DAVIS

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 22, 2000


NEW PORT RICHEY -- Michelle Harmon has a lot of memories of Alex Boucher, and all of them break her heart.

She remembers her nephew's blond hair, his innocent smile, the happy times they shared and the frustrating moments when the mentally and physically disabled boy stretched her patience to the breaking point.

But one memory stands out above the rest: On the day in mid September when Harmon saw her nephew for the last time, she said Alex told her that Jim Curtis, the man now charged with killing the boy, had punched him in the stomach.

"At the time, I didn't know what he meant," Harmon said. "Alex had a problem communicating, and I wasn't sure what had happened."

Now she regrets not taking what Alex said at face value.

Two weeks after Curtis and his wife, Jennifer, took custody of the 31/2-year-old boy and brought him to New Port Richey, he was dead. Authorities say Curtis, angry with Alex because he had soiled himself, wrapped the boy in a blanket and pulled it so tightly that he died of asphyxiation.

"I should have listened to him," Harmon told the St. Petersburg Times in a recent telephone interview from her Maine home. "I should have done more."

Authorities had allowed the Curtises to remove Alex and begin adoption proceedings without the usual background checks because they feared Harmon herself was a danger to the boy.

Curtis, 25, was arrested Sept. 29 on charges of first-degree murder. He remains in the Pasco County Jail in Land O'Lakes without bail. A grand jury is expected to review the case later this month.

Alex became a ward of the state of Connecticut two days after he was born because his mother, Diane Boucher, was deemed to be an unfit parent. He spent eight months in a foster home before the Connecticut Division of Children, Youth and Families placed him with the Harmons in Maine.

But after three years, Harmon said Alex was a burden on her family. The boy required lots of attention -- he had cerebral palsy and an eating disorder -- and she couldn't give Alex everything he needed and also raise her own three children, one of whom has Down's syndrome.

So she contacted Connecticut DCF and asked the agency to find another home for Alex.

"We needed not to be stretched so thin," Harmon said. "We felt like we weren't giving Alex everything he needed. We couldn't be superhuman. He needed to be an only child."

As caseworkers searched for suitable parents, Harmon suggested the Curtises. She was introduced to them through a close friend, and the Curtises, she said, expressed an interest in Alex.

"I pushed for it to be the Curtises," she said.

But the timing of the transfer caught Harmon by surprise. On Sept. 13, a caseworker with the Maine Department of Human Services knocked on her door and told Harmon to hand Alex over immediately.

Connecticut DCF Deputy Commissioner Stacey Gerber said the sudden hand-over was necessary because they had information from Jim Curtis that Harmon had slapped Alex and the agency feared the boy was in danger.

David Winslow, a spokesman with Maine DHS, said his agency moved quickly because "we had to find a safe place for Alex."

Connecticut gave the Curtises permission to take Alex to their apartment in New Port Richey and begin adoption proceedings.

Harmon denied ever slapping Alex and said the boy was never in danger of being abused in her home.

She thinks Curtis concocted the story about her abusing Alex after he overheard the boy tell Harmon about the punching episode.

"I never abused Alex," Harmon said.

But she regrets not wondering -- until it was too late -- why Alex's behavior seemed to change dramatically during the short time the boy spent with the Curtises in Maine before they moved to Florida.

She was stunned, she said, when Alex returned to her house after a week with the Curtises and blurted out, "I hate you, Mom. I'm never coming home again." But she brushed it off as Alex's way of dealing with a traumatic change in his young life.

She said she also saw clues that Curtis had a tendency to get angry and lose his temper when things didn't go his way. For example, Curtis was overheard yelling obscenities at his mother-in-law after she chastised him for missing Alex's going-away party, Harmon said.

But Harmon didn't think it was a big deal at the time because the Curtises seemed to love Alex, and the boy felt the same way about them.

"Looking back, it all looks like a pattern now," Harmon said. "I guess you could say there were a few red flags."

The case has attracted widespread interest here and in the Northeast because Connecticut authorities allowed the Curtises to bring Alex to Florida without waiting for the required background checks to be completed.

A check of Curtis' background would have revealed that he was under investigation for brandishing a handgun in front of a group of juveniles during a neighborhood dispute.

As a result of the June 26 incident, Curtis and his wife were evicted from their Port Richey apartment. But Harmon wonders if she isn't just as much to blame for Alex's death as the agencies that hastily removed the boy from her care.

After Alex told her that Curtis had punched him, Harmon said she called a foster care advocacy service to report it. But because she didn't know whether to believe Alex, she said she didn't communicate her concerns with any urgency.

The advocacy service, Adoptive and Foster Families of Maine, would not say whether they received a call from Harmon.

Harmon said she did not call child welfare workers in Maine or Connecticut because she didn't think they would help.

"I'll blame myself until the day I die," Harmon said.

"I handed Alex to the Curtises. I'll never stop feeling guilty for handing him over."

- Staff writer Tamara Lush contributed to this report.

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