NEW ORLEANS -- When a 5-year-old Gretna boy died in foster care, his biological parents wanted answers about what happened to their son.
More than a year later, they're still struggling to find out how he died. They haven't even been able to have a funeral because they say his body was cremated without their permission.
“I don't know to this day why my child passed away,” Crystal Simmons said.
It's a question Patrick and Crystal Simmons ask themselves all the time -- what happened to their son, Eli?
The 5-year-old's short life ended April 8, 2013. It was news the Simmons said got with a phone call.
“You need to get to Tulane University immediately, because Eli is having a medical emergency,” Crystal Simmons said.
Eli Simmons had an extensive medical history. A near-drowning in the bathtub at age two left him in a wheelchair, unable to speak or walk, but his parents say he was loved.
“He was a happy go-lucky little boy,” Crystal Simmons said. “Even though he had his disabilities, he recognized people and wanted to play.”
Two months before his death, the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services, or DCFS, removed Eli and his three siblings from his parents' Gretna home following allegations of abuse.
“They just came, and when they left, they had the kids with them,” Patrick Simmons said.
They don't know what type of care Eli got leading up to his death at Tulane Medical Center less than two months later.
The Orleans Parish Coroner's Office ruled his death an "accident,” and the Simmons say DCFS never gave them an explanation.
“The last time I seen my child, he was laying on the table at the hospital where he died at,” Patrick Simmons said.
But that wasn't the end to the heart-breaking news for the Simmons. Patrick Simmons went to the coroner's office to get his son's body, only to find a post-it note stuck to the report saying he'd been buried a month earlier.
The Simmons said they were told Eli's body had been cremated and the remains were put in a potter's field. They've never been able to visit his grave or have a proper funeral. And now there's no chance the family can have their own autopsy performed to get a second opinion about how their child died.
“Basically, the coroner's office buried our child without permission,” Crystal Simmons said.
Attorney Rachel Moss said a Jefferson Parish judge issued a court order to preserve Eli's body. The Simmons have filed a lawsuit against numerous state agencies, including DCFS, the Orleans Parish Coroner's Office and Eli's unnamed foster parents.
“The coroner's office, in their report, didn't have any reference to the court order that they preserve the body.” Moss said. “They're doing everything they can to cover their mistakes and they're not giving any information.”
We asked Eyewitness News legal analyst Donald “Chick” Foret to review the lawsuit.
“This lawsuit asks a lot of unanswered questions,” he said. “The question becomes, did the state of Louisiana inform the coroner's office of Orleans Parish that that order was in place by the juvenile court judge?”
Either way, Moss said, the court order was not followed and no explanation has been given as to what happened leading up to Eli's death.
“The foster parent who was caring for the child at the time of his death is too distraught to share why he may have died,” Moss said.
The coroner's office and DCFS declined to comment on Eli's case or the lawsuit because it is an ongoing case. But a spokesperson for DCFS told Eyewitness News in an email that caregivers are informed of all foster childrens' special needs, and any training requirements the caregiver requires to meet those needs, saying "caregivers have the option to determine they are not equipped to care for a child and turn down that placement."
“In preparing the caregiver for the child, the Child Welfare staff informs the family of all known special care provisions, including the child's known physical, mental and behavioral health needs, medications and how to administer them, allergies, treating physician, and any other specialized training requirements the caregiver requires to meet the medical and /or behavioral needs of the child,” said Lindsey deBlieux, a spokeswoman for the DCFS.
"Angry? Whew,” Patrick Simmons said. “It made me devastated, to where I didn't really know how to think.”
The Simmons' problems aren't over. Before it was discovered that Eli's body had been buried, they say they were on track to be reunified with their remaining children.
Now, Moss said the state is pushing for their parental rights to be terminated.
"They're bullying,” Moss said. “They're using the system to bully these parents and to say they don't want them to have their children.”
Patrick Simmons said, “I feel like they didn't care. I feel like they took me as a name on a sheet of paper. A number. And it's just their job.”
Patrick said he wants justice for Eli. Crystal said what she needs is peace.
“And it would be peace for me to know why my child died,” she said.
The Simmons family hopes to get some answers soon. One of their attorneys said a hearing in the case is set for May 27, and they expect the state to provide more details about the circumstances surrounding Eli's death.