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Coroner’s office rules foster child Dakota Levi Stevens’ death is as a homicide

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The death of Dakota Levi Stevens, the boy who was in foster care in Liberty Township in late April and was remembered by mourners at his funeral for his smile and creativity, has been ruled a homicide by the St. Joseph County Coroner’s Office in South Bend.

The cause of death was mechanical asphyxiation, according to a public report from that office. Mechanical asphyxiation occurs when an object or physical force stops someone from breathing.

The report, dated Monday, notes that Dakota, 10, died at 5:36 a.m. on April 27 at Memorial Hospital in South Bend. He was transferred to Memorial from Northwest Health-Porter.

Dakota died two days after what police have called a “medical emergency” on April 25 at a foster home in the 200 block of Falcon Way in Liberty Township.

“Now that we have the actual cause of death the birth family as well as us, his previous foster family and families, would like to see justice be served, not just for Dakota, but for all wrongful deaths that have happened as a result of abuse while in the system,” said Haden Hetzel of Hammond, Dakota’s former longtime foster father, in a statement to the Post-Tribune.

Hayden Hetzel, who fostered Dakota Levi Stevens, 10, who died in foster care on April 27, from 2019 to 2021, speaks during a candlelight vigil for Stevens in Valparaiso on Monday, May 6, 2024. (Kyle Telechan/for the Post-Tribune)

No one has been charged in Dakota’s death. Sgt. Benjamin McFalls, public information officer for the Porter County Sheriff’s Department, said Dakota’s death is still under investigation. Porter County Prosecutor Gary Germann declined to comment, citing the ongoing investigation.

Officials with the Indiana Department of Child Services did not immediately return a request for comment. In an email last month, a spokeswoman said Dakota’s foster parent “has been licensed since 2017 and was in good standing, having completed the required training and education required to achieve and maintain licensure.”

In the days after Dakota’s death, the department issued a statement that said, “Our entire staff is heartbroken by this news. DCS works with stakeholders and partners across the state to investigate the death of a child any time there is suspected abuse or neglect and will take the appropriate action.”

Logan Mills, Dakota’s cousin, and Hetzel have said Dakota and a younger sister were removed from their biological parents’ home because of their reported drug use. Their father died and their mother eventually relinquished parental rights. His sister was later adopted.

Dakota bounced between family members, foster homes and a mental health facility, those close to him have said.

Mourners at a private funeral held May 6 at Geisen Funeral Home in Crown Point said Dakota, who was affectionately called “Levi” by his family, was an extraordinary child despite the trauma he had experienced.

“He didn’t deserve this. He was better than a lot of people here,” Dakota’s aunt, Nicole Rubalcava, who also works at Geisen, said during his funeral. “Even if he battled stuff, this kid’s heart truly was not made for this world. He taught me so much, he truly did, and I didn’t think a kid could teach you stuff like that.”

The Eagle Ridge subdivision in Liberty Township, where Dakota lived briefly the foster home before his death, came together that night for a candlelight vigil to remember the boy with a pledge that his death would not be in vain.

Visitors stand, illuminated by candles, as well-wishes and prayers are said during a candlelight vigil for Dakota Levi Stevens, 10, in Liberty Township on Tuesday, May 7, 2024. (Kyle Telechan/for the Post-Tribune)
Visitors stand, illuminated by candles, as well-wishes and prayers are said during a candlelight vigil for Dakota Levi Stevens, 10, in Liberty Township on day, Monday, May 6, 2024. (Kyle Telechan/for the Post-Tribune)

Hetzel’s mom, Sabrina Hetzel, of Hammond, called for justice when she approached the portable microphone during the vigil.

“We’re heartbroken over the events that took place. We’re here because we want justice for Dakota,” she said then. “There need to be changes. A child lost his life and it was senseless. It was a system that was supposed to protect him and it failed.”

Hayden Hetzel hopes Dakota’s death spurs change within the foster system.

“These children deserved much better and moving forward, I hope this is the stepping stone to a better future and system. I hope that his death does not go unnoticed and causes some changes to be made,” he said in his statement. “May little Dakota rest easy now and finally be at peace once someone is held accountable for these actions.”

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