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KARE 11 Investigates: Red flags Ignored, a child murdered | #childsafety | #kids | #chldern | #parents | #hacking | #aihp

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 ten 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.

“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 non-profit 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.

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

EDITOR’S NOTE: Details in this story are taken from hundreds of pages of emails, case worker notes, court transcripts, videos and interviews. It contains graphic descriptions of child abuse. 

Chapter 1
One of dozens of child deaths

Wilson blames not only Eli’s caseworkers for the boy’s death, but a flawed state child protection philosophy that does not take child neglect seriously enough.

“The case worker was employing a very narrow view of child protection and of child safety,” Wilson said. “She seemed to think the only function of child protection was to ensure this child’s immediate physical safety.”

The records bear that out. Thaler would get repeated chances because most of the reports made against her were that she was neglecting and mentally abusing Eli, but not physically harming him.

Eli’s primary child protection worker, Beth Dehner, would repeatedly say in the records that she was concerned for Eli’s mental health, but not afraid for his physical safety.

A report released in February by the non-profit child advocacy group Safe Passages for Children identified numerous cases where the child suffered chronic neglect before being killed.

The report found Eli was one of 88 Minnesota children who died from maltreatment since 2014. In 59 of those cases, there was a prior history with child protection.

Safe Passages Executive Director Rich Gehrman blames a system that too often values family reunification over child safety.

“The weight that is given to the rights of parents and the interests of communities is just completely eclipsing the rights and the interests and the safety of children,” Gehrman said. “We need a change of philosophy here.”

A request to interview Dehner or anyone with Dakota County who could discuss the case was declined. In a statement, the county said:

“Dakota County is committed to the protection of children and is deeply saddened by the murder of Eli Hart. Minnesota’s child protection system is complex, with many partners working together to promote the best interests of children and families based on state rules and statutes.

Our deepest sympathy goes out to the family and friends impacted by this tragic loss.

Data involving a child in protective services is classified as private or confidential under state law, and we are unable to provide further comment.”

Eli’s father, Tory Hart, has filed a federal lawsuit accusing Dakota County of negligence. Hart declined to comment through his attorney.

Chapter 2
A troubled history

Julissa Thaler’s severe mental illness and drug abuse filled Eli’s short life with pain and heartbreak.

Still, his smile and laugh would always light up a room. There’s a video of him proudly flexing his tiny arms after doing pushups. Another of him laughing uncontrollably through his gapped-tooth smile as his foster mother smeared his nose with birthday cake frosting.

“He was just so happy and energetic and joyful,” said his foster mother, Nikita Kronberg. “There wasn’t a mean bone in him.”

Thaler began drinking at age 13, according to court records. She abused opiates at 16 and sedatives at 20. She was repeatedly hospitalized and sent to treatment. She was diagnosed with at least two personality disorders.

She was 21 when she used LSD “on a daily basis,” according to medical records. That year, in December 2015, child protection got its first report about Thaler. She was suspected of exposing Eli to drugs before she gave birth to him.

Eli was born with Townes-Brocks syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that can cause abnormalities in body organs. He would need hearing aids for the rest of his life, and then routine appointments with specialists to monitor the impacts of the syndrome as he continued to grow.

Eli was just a year and half old when Rice County child protection got a report that his mother was delusional and despondent, fearing that a bug was trying to attack her son. The only way Eli could get her attention at times was to bang his head on a table.

The county closed the case after Thaler agreed to get treatment for herself and Eli.

Her delusions were often directed at Eli’s father, Tory, whom she continually accused of violently abusing her but never had evidence to support her claims. At one point she admitted to constantly lying about him.

In 2019, she accused him of planting a bomb in her car. Though police found only a water bottle full of nails, Thaler used that report to get a restraining order which barred Tory from contacting her. Since she had sole custody of their son, Tory felt he had no way of being with Eli.

Thaler moved to Farmington and had mental breakdowns in late 2020 and early 2021. She left Eli naked amongst broken eggs, rotting garbage and a flooded bathroom.

Three months later she heard voices telling her to kill herself.

Social workers found Eli home alone with cuts, matted hair and without his hearing aids.

A judge put 5-year-old Eli into the legal custody and responsibility of Dakota County, which moved him into foster care with Thaler’s cousin Stephen Kronberg, his wife Nikita, and their family in January 2021. He was kind and energetic, the kind of kid who wanted to make friends with everyone. He quickly became beloved.

“He was family,” Nikita said.

Chapter 3
‘I just can’t function’

To get Eli back, Thaler needed to meet what should have been basic requirements as a parent. The court spelled them out. Treat and stabilize her mental health. Meet his medical needs. Maintain clean and stable housing. Remain drug-free and submit to random testing. Have age-appropriate conversations with Eli.

Eli’s father wanted to be a part of the case, but Tory did not have custody of his son and was not considered as a placement option. The county required him to undergo parenting and psychological evaluations and drug tests, none of which identified any concerns.

Meanwhile, a pattern emerged with Thaler. Over the next 11 months she would deny any wrongdoing, and fixated on accusing Tory of trying to harm her and Eli. She would ignore instructions from social workers and lie to them, then beg them to return her son.

And she continued to struggle with her own mental health. At one visit, “Mom told Eli that she is living off of Mountain Dew and cigarettes,” a social worker wrote. “Mom said ‘I just can’t function, and I don’t know what to do.’”

Thaler missed or tampered with drug tests. In late April records show she was arrested after allegedly stealing pain meds and needles from an Apple Valley clinic.  

Chapter 4
‘This woman is crazy’

Child Protection worker Beth Dehner took over the case in early July as concerns about Thaler’s mental health and instability continued.

Thaler stopped going to therapy in October, records show. She repeatedly moved – four homes in four months. Case workers suspected she was homeless for a time. In November she was kicked out of drug testing for being too disruptive.

Her accusations against Tory continued, but Dehner and other case workers began to realize they were made up. Tory started visits with Eli, who developed a strong bond with his father. They believed he was a stabilizing influence in the boy’s life.

But records show supervised visits went poorly between Eli and his mother. During one, she dug her fingernails into a social worker’s hand and threw garbage at her. At a visit a week later, the social worker reported Thaler ignored Eli for long stretches and instead just stared into space as he loudly begged her to play with him.

“This woman is crazy,” the case worker wrote to Dehner.

Sherri Larson, Eli’s Guardian ad Litem – appointed by the court to represent his best interests – tried to observe a visit between Thaler and Eli. But Thaler kept arguing with her.

“I kept telling her to concentrate on her visit and she wouldn’t do it,” Larson wrote to Dehner. “I finally just had to leave.”

Larson declined an interview request for this story. 

Chapter 5
Facing a deadline

When children are put into foster care in Minnesota, a clock starts. The children must be reunited with their caregivers within a year or be on track to be placed into another permanent home.

By November, the state-mandated deadline drew closer. It was a crucial moment in the case.

Larson filed a court report wanting to see the case go to “permanency,” which could have ended Thaler’s parental rights and allowed the county to place Eli with his father.

Thaler would have had the opportunity to challenge that decision in court.

Child Protection worker Dehner shared Larson’s concerns, but felt Thaler was meeting parts of her case plan. She worried that would complicate any effort to strip Thaler’s rights to Eli.

“I don’t think Julissa will maintain what she is currently doing, but my opinion about that isn’t enough to win a case in court apparently,” Dehner wrote in an email to the assistant Dakota County attorney handling the case, Jennifer Jackson.

In her court report, Dehner wrote in the two weeks prior that Thaler had picked her son up on time for her unsupervised visits, made it to Eli’s therapy appointments, and dropped him back off at his foster parents on time. She also agreed to restart drug testing.

Despite ongoing concerns, Dehner asked a judge to allow Eli to return to Thaler on a trial home visit – while the county retained legal custody.

That decision alarmed his other caregivers. Tory and Eli’s foster mom peppered Dehner with emails sharing the fears they had about what Thaler would do to her son.

“We are just gonna forget every single bad thing that she has done these last 10 months?!” Kronberg emailed to Dehner.

Dehner had a backup plan.

“I let Julissa know that if things don’t go well with the trial home visit,” Dehner wrote to assistant Dakota County Attorney Jackson, “we would place (Eli) with Tory and file for a transfer of custody.”

“My question for you,” Dehner continued, “what would we need to see in order for a trial home visit to be ended and make that plan for a transfer of custody?”

Jackson responded 20 minutes later, saying according to state statute, a trial home visit may end “in order to protect the child’s health, safety, or welfare.”

“It doesn’t need to rise to the level of endangerment,” she wrote. “If mom shows she cannot consistently meet his needs … then I think we consider ending the THV.”

“And I do like the backup plan with dad.”

The judge signed off on the trial home visit.

Chapter 6
Stalking the foster family

The county set a date of Dec. 22 to start the trial home visit, timed so that Eli would not miss school.

Until then, there were overnight visits with Thaler, but Eli remained in Kronberg’s care. One night as Thaler brought Eli back to his foster parents’ home, Kronberg watched as Thaler came flying down a road, dangerously over the 20mph limit. Eli sobbed as he got out of the car.

“I’m still trying to wrap my mind around the decision to do this home trial,” Kronberg wrote to Dehner. “The reason Eli was taken from the home was due to mom’s mental health, and her mental health has not improved at all. If anything I would say it has declined.”

Later that month, on a cold December night, Thaler and a roommate parked on the street in front of Kronberg’s home, binoculars in hand, then sat and watched the house for hours into the next morning.

Kronberg got up early for work around 3 a.m. on Dec 20, 2021, spotted the car and called the police. She tried to confront Thaler, but the car drove away.

Kronberg emailed Dehner repeatedly that morning, terrified for her family’s safety. She told Dehner she would get a restraining order barring Thaler from having any contact with them.

Instead of being alarmed by Thaler’s behavior, Dehner quickly emailed Eli’s school to let them know there would be a change of plans.

“We have made the decision to have Eli move back with his mom two days early after what occurred last night,” Dehner wrote.

As she reflects more than a year later on how Eli’s case was handled, Kronberg feels only anger. Giving Eli back two days early only rewarded Julissa. Even before then, there were so many red flags, she said.

“And had they listened or looked at them, or done their jobs to protect Eli,” Kronberg said, “then I truly believe he would still be here today.”

Chapter 7
Lies and missed appointments

The trial home visit got off to a rocky start.

The very first day Eli was back with his mom, child protection was warned in an email by his school that Thaler was driving recklessly both when she dropped off and picked up the boy.

“Teachers who don’t know Eli or his story, are all addressing large concerns,” a teacher wrote.

Ten days later, on Dec. 30, the court-appointed guardian was so concerned she recommended taking Eli back from Thaler.

“I feel like we need to vacate the (trial home visit) as she doesn’t appear stable to me and is putting Eli at risk,” Sherri Larson wrote to Dehner at child protection.

By then Larson had been made aware of Thaler stalking Eli’s foster parents. Thaler was also repeatedly calling Larson to try to get visits with Eli’s father canceled. When that didn’t happen, Thaler filed for another Order for Protection (OFP) against him, using many of the same false accusations she had in the past.

“These are the same concerns regarding her mental health that brought this case in, and it hasn’t improved,” Larson wrote to Dehner.

That same day Dehner had a disturbing video visit with Eli and Thaler, the records show. When Thaler tried to discuss the new OFP she filed, Dehner told her the county had no concerns about Tory. Thaler became so argumentative that Dehner hung up on her.

Thaler slammed the door in the face of another social worker dropping Eli off after a visit with his father. “She does not want me looking in her apartment that’s for sure,” the social worker wrote to Dehner.

Meanwhile, Thaler missed so many required parenting education sessions that she was kicked out in mid-January, records show.

By the end of the month, child protection also caught Thaler lying to them about her mental health program. In an email, she said she had graduated and no longer needed services. Days later, the program director said that wasn’t true.

Child protection also worried that Thaler was not being “truthful” with her therapists – and that she was seeking new providers who knew nothing about her history.

Despite all the lies, the missed sessions, and concerns about her mental stability, officials allowed the trial home visit to continue. 

“There is no current indication that (Eli) is physically unsafe in (Thaler’s) care,” Dehner wrote to the court in early February.

Despite Thaler’s decade-long history of drug and alcohol abuse, Dehner took Thaler off testing after two months of clean tests.

Chapter 8
‘My mom was hurting me’

Meanwhile, evidence was emerging that Eli’s behavior was changing.

At school, his teachers reported that Eli became aggressive and punched other kids. In February a teacher wrote to Dehner about an incident where she asked children on the playground about someone being mean to them.

“Eli proceeded to tell me that his mom pushes him,” the teacher emailed. “The other students seemed shocked by this example.”

Dehner’s response: “I appreciate the update and it is interesting that he would make that statement. It’s not something that CPS would take as a maltreatment report to assess unfortunately, however I do you want to keep documenting everything.”

Later the same month, Eli’s play therapist emailed Dehner to describe an incident where the boy hid in a cabinet after his mother became confrontational with the therapist.

Then, in early March, there was another report from Eli’s school. An email described this interaction with a teacher.

There’s no record that child protection took any action.  

Meanwhile, Thaler threatened to cut off all contact again between Eli and his father. In an email, she told Dehner that Eli “WILL NOT BE SEEING TORY” once she gets custody.

“Once this child went back to the mother, he almost immediately began to show signs of emotional distress,” Dee Wilson, the national expert, said of the case. “None of that emotional distress seemed to affect the decision makers at all.”

Chapter 9
‘She’s so mentally ill’

In early March, Tory filed for custody of his son in Hennepin County family court. Thaler responded by filing yet another OFP against Tory, citing many of the same accusations that the county knew were false.

“She’s so mentally ill,” Dehner wrote to Jackson in the county attorney’s office. “I think the second after we close (the case) it’s just going to be report after report of false abuse allegations.”

And yet, Dehner and Jackson urged a judge to close the case at the next hearing.

“The kid has been going to school. She cooperated with a visit for dad last weekend. Kiddo is still going to therapy. That’s basically what she’s required to do at this point,” Dehner emailed to Jackson.

Larson, the guardian, disagreed.

“I just can’t say right out close it without going on record expressing these concerns regarding how she’s impacting his mental health,” she wrote to Dehner. 

At a hearing on March 30th, Larson told the court Thaler was attempting to isolate Eli – including trying to prevent visitation time with his father by filing false abuse reports. She added she had concerns that “Eli is still not safe in his mother’s care.”

“It seems like overall you are doing whatever it takes to thwart any visitation or parenting time by Mr. Hart,” the judge told Thaler. “I’m very concerned by your actions here.”

He rejected child protection’s recommendation to close the case – and scheduled another hearing in May.

Chapter 11
‘Just lazy’

By then, Dehner wanted little to do with Thaler. She was supposed to have one final visit with her, but Thaler canceled it and Dehner didn’t reschedule. Thaler was supposed to have restarted parenting education sessions, but records show Dehner never checked to see if the mother was attending them.

When it came time for the county to bring Eli to a visit with his dad, Dehner had to plan how to pick the boy up from Thaler without angering her.

“I know Julissa will throw a fit, and I’m tired of dealing with her,” Dehner emailed.

Another social worker, Amy Horn, agreed to pick Eli up from his mother’s apartment.

Horn was heartbroken at what she found. The boy had dark circles under his eyes. He looked like he hadn’t showered in days. Eli told Horn that he and his mother drove around in their car all night.

“I’ve never seen him look that way before,” Horn texted to Tory’s girlfriend, Josie.

“I can’t imagine what she’s putting that child through right now,” Horn wrote. “Also, god only knows what she may have given him.”

“I just don’t understand why this has gone on so long,” Josie replied. “Laws need to change.”

“I believe Beth, the social worker didn’t want to deal with Julissa,” Horn texted. “Some workers are just lazy.”

Horn said Dehner “seems to look the other way. It’s very sad.”

“Something has to happen, and soon for Eli!” Josie wrote.

“I wholeheartedly agree.”

Horn sent an email to Dehner and Larson, telling them about Eli saying he and his mother just drove around all night and looked like he hadn’t showered in days.

But both Dehner and Larson had already filed reports with the court recommending the case be closed. They did not update the court with the new information. 

The judge accepted their recommendation and closed the case on May 10. Thaler now had full custody of Eli.

On May 19, Thaler walked around a sporting goods store asking for shells that would “blow the biggest hole into something.”

The next day – just 10 days after the child protection case had been closed and exactly five months since Eli started the trial home visit — police stopped Thaler as she drove near her Lake Minnetonka apartment.

One of the tires was completely gone. The back window of the car was shot out. She told police kids shot BB guns at her. Blood was splattered inside, which she told police was deer meat. 

She was allowed to return to her nearby apartment. Officers stayed with the car, opened the trunk and found Eli’s remains inside. A short distance away in a dumpster they found Eli’s car seat, riddled with shotgun holes.

WARNING: The video below contains graphic content.

Thaler has since repeatedly said she had nothing to do with Eli’s death, even going so far as to flip off the courtroom and proclaim her innocence the day she was sentenced to life in prison for murdering her son.

On the day Eli was found in the trunk – but before his case had made the news – Dehner filed her final case report.

“At the time of case closing,” she wrote, “while there were some concerns about Julissa’s parenting, there were no protection issues that required ongoing child protection placement or involvement.”

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