On a frigid evening in 2021, Cynthia Bergeron pulled the limp body of her 3-year-old grandson, Derric Fulks Jr., from his car seat and frantically tried to revive him on the sidewalk in front of her south Minneapolis home.
The rest of the evening would be a blur of screams for help, ambulance sirens and police officers walking through Bergeron's living room. Derric's four siblings watched in silence from their grandmother's doorstep as paramedics lifted the boy into an ambulance.
"It was the darkest night of our lives," Bergeron said. "All we knew is that Derric stopped breathing, and we didn't know why."
More than a year later, much about the circumstances of Derric's short life and death remains unknown. An autopsy found the boy died of exposure to fentanyl — a toxic, synthetic opioid that's mixed into illicit drugs to make them more potent. The Minnesota Department of Human Services and Hennepin County have launched clinical reviews of the child's death, but the agencies declined to share any details in part because they say their investigations are unfinished.
Yet an examination of Derric's fleeting life, drawn from court records, shows the boy was in peril from the start.
He entered the world on Sept. 20, 2018, with marijuana in his system. At 6 months, Derric's hand was lacerated with glass when his mother's boyfriend threw a liquor bottle at their car, shattering its window. At 7 months, Derric was present when police raided his father's home — finding a handgun, ammunition, marijuana and a scale for weighing drugs. And on the day after his third birthday, Derric arrived at his day care with a swollen face and a "huge gash" under his eye. When asked about the injury, the child said only, "Daddy," according to county court records.
Even so, workers with Ramsey County, where the family lived, did not take steps to remove Derric from his home or to inform his closest relatives about incidents of maltreatment chronicled in court records.
Instead, social workers repeatedly offered the family social services through an alternative approach, known as "Family Assessment," that is intended to keep families together by identifying their needs and building on their strengths.
Derric's death renews concerns about how counties handle incidents of child maltreatment and the secrecy that often surrounds their response. Even in cases in which social workers know about abuse, Minnesota children often are left in dangerous settings where they experience repeated abuse, according to a recent analysis of child fatalities.
More than 160 Minnesota children have died of abuse and neglect since 2014, often in preventable situations, according to a new study by the nonprofit Safe Passage for Children of Minnesota.
Deploying a team of experts, including court officers and medical professionals with experience in child fatality cases, the group analyzed 88 child fatalities and found that 72% of the children were known to child protection agencies before their deaths.
The experts also found that many serious incidents of maltreatment that should have been investigated by county agencies were instead placed on the family assessment track. For the past four years, county agencies consistently have assigned about 60% of all accepted maltreatment cases to this alternative path, state records show.
"The core mission of child welfare is to protect children, yet it frequently left them in situations where they experienced life-altering neglect, repeated physical and sexual abuse, and sometimes torture, often over long periods of time," concluded the authors of the expansive study, which took a year to complete.
The Department of Human Services, which oversees the child protection system, declined an interview request to discuss Derric's death and the Safe Passage study. In a written statement, the agency said a child mortality review of Derric's death is still in process, but state law prohibits it from disclosing details.
"We are committed to supporting a system that continues to place child safety at the forefront of interventions with children and families," the department said.
County workers repeatedly received reports of physical abuse or neglect involving Derric or his siblings. In one of the reported incidents, his mother was seen beating her 7-year-old son outside his day care. Four times, county social workers responded by using a family assessment response. Created in the early 2000s, family assessment offers voluntary services to build on a family's strengths but does not seek to identify or punish abusers.
Bergeron, 50, a property manager with the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority, said she could have saved Derric's life had she known that he was in such danger. The grandmother said she learned about the reports of maltreatment only from court records filed since Derric died.
"My baby grandson did not need to die," she said. "When you have a kid who's witnessed a drug raid, you would expect follow-up services."
On an overcast afternoon, steps from where they saw Derric for the last time, three children raced about a yard cluttered with toys and a trampoline. Bergeron peeked her head out the door and called them inside for a dinner of spaghetti and chicken. The children gathered at a table beneath Derric's portrait — his pudgy cheeks and wide grin looking down on them as they ate.
"I want our home to be a sanctuary from the chaos because these kids have already been through too much," Bergeron said.
But emotional scars remain. Brandon, now 8, was among the first to notice that his normally ebullient little brother was not breathing that December evening. He witnessed his grandmother attempting mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on the same patch of sidewalk where he now waits for his school bus each morning.
Since Derric's death, Brandon has kept an especially close, big-brotherly eye on his 2-year-old twin sisters, Dominique and Elise. Sometimes late at night, he wanders into their upstairs bedroom and lays his head against them to make sure that their chests are rising and falling, Bergeron said.
Bergeron has seen her life upended since taking temporary custody of Derric's four siblings after his death. Most mornings, she wakes at 4:30 to prepare her youngest three grandchildren, including a 4-month-old infant, Me'Sire, for Head Start. Evenings are crowded with sports activities, after-school tutoring and mental health therapy.
"Everybody in this house has trauma," Bergeron said as she held one of her granddaughters on her lap. "And it comes in different ways for everybody."
Court records paint a chaotic picture of Derric's final days. In November 2021, less than a month before the boy's death, a fire tore through the family's apartment in St. Paul. His mother, Dominique Bergeron, moved Derric and her three other children to a hotel in Eagan. On the day the boy died, she decided she needed a "break" and dropped off the children at her mother's house in south Minneapolis, court records say.
Cynthia Bergeron recalls racing down the stairs of her home when she was told that her youngest grandson was unresponsive in the back seat of her daughter's van.
"I can still remember Brandon's face to this day, as he was telling me that his little brother wasn't waking up," Bergeron said, sobbing. "It's a terrible, terrible tragedy."
According to court records, Dominique Bergeron appeared to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol on the day that her son died, and she would not cooperate with police who arrived on the scene. Reached by phone, she declined to answer questions about the incident and how her son was exposed to fentanyl.
"To be honest, I'm still in disbelief," she said.
Cynthia Bergeron said the mystery surrounding Derric's death has made it more difficult for the family to move on with their lives. She was hopeful that the state and county's mortality reviews would help answer key questions. Among them: Why Derric was left in his mother's home after they knew of abuse? And why were family members not informed?
So far, Bergeron said no one from the county or state has interviewed her about Derric's death or updated her about the reviews.
"A child has died and no one in government seems to care," she said. "What I want to know is, 'Where is the action plan to avoid this from happening again in the future?'"
Early this month, a Hennepin County social worker made a regular visit to Bergeron's home to check on Derric's siblings. They were doing well, with the twin girls talking more and enjoying Head Start. In a report, the worker noted that all the children were "very sweet and loving" toward the newest member of the family, Me'Sire, who was described as "calm and happy."