Mother claims her 3-year-old daughter died after being placed in couple’s custody

HOUSTON – A Houston couple has been charged in connection with the beating death of a 3-year-old girl who had been placed in their care by Child Protective Services as a safety precaution, according to her mother.

Huey Hamilton, 53, and Shawanda Hamilton, 36, are each charged with injury to a child in connection with the beating death of Tarija Carter. The little girl died in January 2020, and it took months of investigation to determine the cause and circumstances of her death.

“This was a chronic situation,” said Harris County prosecutor Gilbert Sawtelle. “There were healed-patterned injuries all over her body and there was evidence of non-accidental trauma.”

“The main focus injury, the one that led to her death, was an injury to her knee that was caused by blunt force trauma which allowed bacteria to enter her bloodstream and kill her,” Sawtelle added.

Tarija was left with the Hamiltons by her birth mother, Rhodashinique Phillips. She said that she and her children had lived with Shawanda Hamilton, who was the kids’ godmother, in 2018, but had to move out when Huey Hamilton returned home from prison.

Phillips said she was down on her luck, jobless and facing homelessness. She was also under investigation by CPS. She said CPS decided to place Tarija and her 1-year-old sister with the Hamiltons for safety.

“I didn’t want to lose my kids to the state,” Phillips said. “They were safe. I was seeing my kids. They were safe. They were well. No harm. She was sending me pictures. She was taking them out to eat. Everything was fine.”

In the spring of 2019, Hamilton cut off Phillips’ access to her children. When Phillps complained, she said her CPS caseworker told her she might lose custody if she tried to go get them.

“When I called my caseworker, which is Nicole Nicolas, she told me, ‘You go over and go pick up those kids, but if you don’t have your own apartment we’re going to go get them and they’re going to go to state.’”

Phillips said she last saw her daughter alive in August of 2019. She said the next time she saw Tarija was at the little girl’s funeral.

The Hamiltons each face up to 99 years in prison if convicted.

CPS response

Melissa Lanford, spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, said in an email to KPRC 2 that included the agency’s report about Tarija that Phillips was the person who decided to place her children in the custody of the Hamiltons. Her full statement is below:

“As noted in the report, CPS was not part of the decision to allow Tarija to stay with the family friend. That decision was made by the mother. CPS had no open case involving Tarija when she died.”