Family: CPS, Lincoln Park police knew of 5-year-old's abuse years before his death

Kara Berg
The Detroit News

Ethan Belcher's family had called Child Protective Services more than a dozen times during his short life, two of his aunts said, with one of them saying Belcher went through "pure torture" during the past few years before he died earlier this month.

The 5-year-old boy was found dead Jan. 22 in a Detroit house his aunt Candace Rush dubbed the "house of horrors." His mother, Valerie Hamilton, and step-father, Shane Shelton, were charged with murder, torture and child abuse in connection with Ethan's death and the alleged abuse of his 3-year-old brother.

Ethan Belcher, left, with his older brother

Wayne County Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Matthew Makepeace said last week during Shelton and Hamilton's arraignments that other kids in the home told investigators Shelton and Hamilton would beat them and force them to remain in the basement of the house, which was filled with sewage water and feces. Makepeace said calling the dwelling a house was "generous" and described it as somewhere between an abandoned home and a construction site.

At the time of his death, Ethan had bruises in the shape of loops on his body, indicating an object like a cord was used to make the marks, and multiple abrasions, Makepeace said. One of his toes had gangrene and was rotting and black, he said. His aunt, Ashley Belcher, said this was from frostbite. The 3-year-old had frostbitten toes as well, she said.

This wasn't the first time Ethan had been hurt, Rush and Belcher said. They first called CPS sometime before Ethan turned 2, Rush said. He was so skinny when relatives saw him, they could count every rib, she said. But CPS told them he was not malnourished, Rush said.

Ethan Belcher's aunt called Child Protective Services for the first time when he was a baby when they saw how malnourished he was, as seen in the photo on the right.

In 2021, Ashley Belcher said she took the boy to the hospital when Hamilton's mother brought him to her "beaten from head to toe." He had welts all over his head, his eye was swollen and almost split open, his hand was swollen and he was bruised across his ribs, legs and buttocks, she said, so much he could hardly sit.

"Ethan was a precious baby boy and he did not deserve to go through what he went through, which was pure torture," Belcher said.

Lincoln Park police investigated and sent a warrant request for a child abuse charge to the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office in October 2021, Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Maria Miller said. Prosecutors returned the warrant to police in February 2022 and asked them to conduct further investigation. The request never went any further.

Ethan Belcher in 2021 after he came to his aunt's house with his eye swollen and bruised, looking like he had been "beaten head to toe," his aunt Ashley Belcher said.

Lincoln Park police did not respond to a request for comment, but Chief Raymond Watters told Fox 2 that Ethan suffered "minor injuries" in 2021 and prosecutors denied the warrant request. Miller said prosecutors never denied the request.

"They failed him too," Belcher said of Lincoln Park police's involvement. "They just ignored it and swept it under the rug."

Every time family members tried to protect the kids, Ashley Belcher said, CPS would hand them right back to their parents. Rush said the kids were taken from Hamilton and Shelton at least twice. Belcher said Shelton's sister told her she called CPS eight times, but did not have Shelton's address so her complaints were ignored.

Michigan Department of Health and Human Services spokesperson Bob Wheaton said he could not comment on CPS cases because of state law.

"The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) was extremely saddened to hear about Ethan Belcher’s death and the department expresses its condolences to his loved ones," Wheaton said in a statement. "MDHHS will continue to work daily with law enforcement, community partners and others on prevention services."

The things her 6-year-old nephew — Ethan's older brother, who is now living with her — has told her gives her nightmares, Ashley Belcher said. The boy told her Shelton busted his head open with a pipe and didn't take him to the hospital, she said. When she checked his head, she could see a deep scar. She already has him scheduled for a CT scan to make sure he is OK.

The 6-year-old was close to Ethan; they were born on the same day a year apart, she said. He's adjusting to her home, but is struggling without Ethan, she said. He doesn't understand what happened, but Belcher said he showed her how Ethan was positioned when he died and told her how he looked. She's scared he's going to have nightmares about the abuse.

"I can't imagine (the 6-year-old) watching them do that to him," Belcher said. "He was in the house the whole time."

Ethan Belcher

Belcher said Ethan was a sweet, loving child. He loved to be around his brothers and loved the park. He just really wanted to be loved, Belcher said. He didn't seem to understand what love was when Belcher showered him with hugs and kisses, which she found so sad.

"I kinda almost knew this would happen," Belcher said. "It’s sad I couldn’t save him."

Rush is determined not to let Ethan's death be in vain. She wants the state to pass laws so children will be better protected in their homes, especially if there are prior CPS complaints.

"I hate that my nephew has to be a name to be used to save other kids," Rush said.

Ethan's family started a GoFundMe page to raise money for his funeral expenses.