Malachi Lawson: A Bureaucratic Failure

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1st January 2024  •  9 min read

On 1 August, 2019, four-year-old Malachi Lawson was reported missing by his mother's wife. An investigation into the case uncovered that the family was already well known to Child Protective Services.


Malachi Lawson: A Bureaucratic Failure

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On the afternoon of the 1st of August, 2019, a 911 call came in to police in Baltimore, Maryland, from 40-year-old Shatika Lawson. She reported that her wife’s son, four-year-old Malachi Lawson, had disappeared from outside his grandmother’s home. She said that at about 3:22PM, Malachi had walked away from the front porch of his grandmother’s home in the 4500 block of Rogers Avenue in Northwest Baltimore. He was wearing a white tank top, khaki shorts, and black flip flops.

Malachi Lawson, born in 2015 to Alicia Lawson and a former boyfriend, faced unique challenges as a nonverbal child with developmental disabilities. Alicia, a graduate of Frederick Douglass High School, immediately entered the workforce, securing a job at McDonald’s to support herself and her young son. Soon after Malachi’s birth, Alicia formed a relationship with Shatika, who quickly became a second mother figure in Malachi’s life.

Melissa Johnson, Malachi’s aunt, fondly recalled his infectious smile, noting that he had a remarkable ability to uplift those around him. According to Melissa, whenever the animated series Paw Patrol aired on television, Malachi’s imagination soared, and he would enthusiastically pretend to transform into one of his favourite characters.1

Despite Malachi’s cheerful demeanour, his domestic life was tumultuous, leading to his removal from the care of Alicia and Shatika in 2016. Placed into foster care, he found solace and guidance under the compassionate care of Jil Jackson. When he first came into Jil’s care, she said that he was “very frightened, very timid, very scared, very shaky” but as time went on, he developed into a happy little boy who enjoyed playing with her other children. Jil recalled how Malachi was one of the sweetest babies that she had ever fostered, and that she had loved him as if he were her own son. She commented: “He would sit on my bed and just play with his fingers.”

However, after spending less than a year with Jil, she received a phone call informing her that Malachi would be returned to Alicia, and Shatika. Then, on August 1, 2019, he was reported missing. Promptly responding to the 911 call, the police were informed that Malachi was last seen wearing a white tank top, khaki shorts, and black flip flops. Police disseminated photographs of Malachi along with a detailed description, noting his dark braided hair, a missing front tooth, and potential characteristics indicative of being on the autism spectrum. Alicia also informed detectives that he walked with a limp due to a previously broken femur bone.2

While releasing the information on Malachi’s disappearance, Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison announced: “We are asking for the community’s help to bring about Malachi’s safe return. We are utilizing all of the resources available to us.” He asked that if anybody had any information about Malachi’s whereabouts, to contact the Missing Person’s Unit.3

The community rallied together, mobilizing in large numbers to aid in the search for Malachi. They meticulously combed through the neighoburhood before expanding their efforts further afield. A few blocks from Malachi’s grandmother’s residence lay Powder Mill Park, a densely wooded area. Every nook and cranny was examined, including drains, bins, and any other possible places a child might be trapped, yet there was no trace of Malachi.

Darkness descended on Baltimore, causing many of the searchers to return home for the night. Nevertheless, there were a dedicated handful, who searched all throughout the night. By the next morning, the FBI had been called in to assist, as detectives began to fear that Malachi was the victim of a kidnapping, although they hadn’t obtained any evidence to conclusively prove it. In an effort to try and trace Malachi, detectives brought his mother, Alicia Lawson, to police headquarters to be interviewed.

After intense questioning, Alicia finally broke down and confessed that Malachi was not missing; he was dead and had been disposed of in a dumpster. She disclosed that approximately nine days before reporting Malachi as missing, he had an incident where he soiled himself at home. Shatika placed him in the bathtub, and while they were washing the soiled clothing in the sink, they discovered severe burns on Malachi’s lower body.

According to Alicia, the burns were so extreme that they could see pieces of skin floating in the water. In a misguided attempt to avoid potential legal consequences and the loss of custody, they opted to treat Malachi’s burns at home over the next nine days. Alicia explained that fear stemming from their previous interactions with child protective services influenced this decision.

Malachi Lawson: A Bureaucratic Failure
Shatika and Alicia Lawson

Alicia said she woke up on the 1st of August to find Malachi unresponsive. She said that she wrapped him up in a blanket and then took a Lyft across the city to an apartment building on the 5500 block of Haldon Avenue. Here, she put Malachi’s body into a trash bag, and then placed him into a dumpster. Detectives immediately descended on the area, and found Malachi’s badly burned body inside the dumpster.

Police Commissioner Harrison announced: “Last night after extensive interviews with Malachi’s mother, she confessed that her son was not missing but deceased. She subsequently gave detectives the location of the child’s remains. The biological mother and her partner will be charged with child neglect resulting in the death of a minor later this afternoon.”

Malachi’s remains were transported to the medical examiner’s office, where the gravity of his injuries became apparent—he had suffered burns spanning from his waist to his feet. Subsequently, both Alicia and Shatika were arrested and faced a slew of charges, including neglect resulting in the death of a minor, first-degree child abuse, reckless endangerment, tampering with evidence, and making false statements.

During a bail review in court, Shatika’s defence attorney, Roya Hanna, sought to shift blame onto Alicia for Malachi’s tragic demise. Hanna argued that Shatika had been preoccupied on the phone with her mother when Alicia allegedly placed Malachi into a bathtub filled with scalding water.

According to Shatika, she wanted to bring Malachi to the emergency room, but she couldn’t because she wasn’t his biological mother. Instead, she said that they tried to treat the burns themselves for more than a week. She claimed that both she and Alicia were afraid that Malachi may have been taken away from them, or that they may have faced charges.

Her defence attorney maintained that Shatika’s 911 call was not fabricated, that she didn’t know that Malachi had died, or that his body had been removed from the home. She claimed that Alicia had kept that information secret from her, and that she had only learned of Malachi’s fate when detectives informed her of her wife’s confession. Hanna commented: “She didn’t want to do anything maliciously.” The judge ultimately denied bail for the couple, ordering that they remain behind bars.

With Alicia and Shatika behind bars, detectives continued in their investigation. There was something that wasn’t adding up; Alicia claimed they didn’t know that Malachi was in scalding water until they turned around, but the pain from the water would have caused him to scream and climb out of the bathtub. The couple had claimed that the hot water in the bath tub had always been scalding, and that the cold water needed to be turned on to cool it down. Detectives descended on the family’s apartment, and tested water from the bathroom, but found that at “no time did the water temperature ever exceed luke warm.”4  

When the findings were made public, Shatika had an explanation. She said that after Malachi was burned, she called the landlord and asked them to adjust the hot water temperature in the bathtub so that it wouldn’t be able to get as hot.5

Continuing the investigation, a vigil for Malachi took place on August 7th. The weather shifted dramatically, with clouds gathering and thunder resonating, setting the sombre backdrop for hundreds of individuals who assembled in front of 4533 N. Rogers Avenue in Woodmere, Northwest Baltimore. Among the attendees were Malachi’s family and strangers touched by his tragic story. Elizabeth Jackson expressed her sorrow to The Sun, stating, “It’s heartbreaking for one because it’s a little kid. He was gone too soon.”

Baltimore minister Lady Moses, who preaches at New Life Fellowship Church, stood alongside Malachi’s former foster mother, Jil, during the gathering. Leading prayers and singing, Lady Moses offered solace to the grieving crowd, affirming, “I’m just here to give my respects to the family and to let them know if they need me for anything, I’m available to them.” Several detectives who worked on the case, including Commissioner Harrison, were also present.

Commissioner Harrison delivered a brief speech, acknowledging the profound tragedy and emphasizing community unity in the face of such evil: “The worst thing that could possibly happen to a family in the community is the loss of a child, but, conversely, the best thing that could happen to a community is when a community gets together to rally up against the evil that took a child.”

Harrison also noted that Malachi’s vigil was taking place on National Night Out, an annual campaign that encourages communication between police and the community. He then added: “Now let’s take what we see now and turn this into more than just one night. Let’s turn this into every week, every month, all year long.” Moments later, balloons were released into the sky, as the crowd gathered to hug Jil.6

In the wake of the memorial, questions were raised about why Malachi was returned to Alicia and Shatika by Child Protective Services. Jil commented in the media that if he had of been left in her care, then he would still be alive: “I wish Child Protective Services would have left him in my home. The court made a decision. I would have loved to have him. You get attached to the baby, but what could I do?”7

The Baltimore City Department of Social Services publicly announced that they were initiating a “thorough, internal review” of their handling of Malachi’s case. Concurrently, as this investigation unfolded, Malachi was laid to rest. On August 12th, mourners congregated at the Mount Zion Apostolic Faith Church for a memorial service. Throughout the service, attendees sang along to the beat of a drummer playing uplifting music, a fitting tribute to Malachi’s love for music.

The funeral took on a comic book theme, with a local woman crafting a comic book titled “FINAL ISSUE” in his honour. The poignant creation depicted a young boy adorned in a cowboy outfit, featuring the words “heaven is cool” and “hey, I’m okay” boldly emblazoned on the front cover.8

Inside the comic book, mourners could read about how “superhero Malachi Lawson” loved Paw Patrol and Mickey Mouse. It also contained photographs of Malachi throughout his short life with a poignant reminder: “Remember… an angel never dies.” Following the service, Malachi was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in a plot that was donated by The Charm City East Moose Lodge 70.9

There was no movement in the case until 10 August, 2021, when Alicia Lawson appeared in court, where she pleaded guilty to one count of child abuse resulting in death. During the hearing, her defence attorney, Gregory Discher, said that his client had suffered depression, anxiety, and nightmares since Malachi had died. He said the Judge Melissa Phinn: “Although Alicia Lawson never intended for Malachi to be scalded in hot water, she understands that she should have immediately taken him to the hospital for medical treatment. She accepts full responsibility. Ms. Lawson would give anything to go back into time and do things differently by immediately seeking medical treatment for Malachi, regardless of the consequences to her.”10

Judge Melissa Phinn ultimately sentenced Alicia to life in prison, with all but 30 years suspended and five years of probation. Two years later, Shatika Lawson also pleaded guilty to one county of child abuse resulting in death. She had reached a plea agreement that would cap her punishment at life in prison with all but 33 years suspended, but allow her defence attorney to argue it should be as low as 18 years of active incarceration. Her sentencing phase was scheduled for December 6.11

When Shatika returned to court, she said to the judge: “I’m going to mourn about him forever. He was a part of me: my morning, noon and night.” Judge Jeannie Hong described the murder of Malachi as “unfathomable” commenting how he was “thrown away in a dumpster like trash.” She announced: “I can’t even imagine the pain that Malachi must’ve gone through in those seven to eight days. What happened was not human.” She then sentenced Shatika to 30 years in prison, plus five years probation.”12

The findings of review into Child Protective Service’s handling of Malachi Lawson have not yet been released.

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Footnotes:

  1. The Sun, 5 August, 2019 – “Malachi Lawson, 4-Year-Old Found Dead in Baltimore”
  2. ABC – 33 KSPR, 4 August, 2019 – “Boy, 4, Found Dead in Baltimore Dumpster”
  3. The Sun, 2 August, 2019 – “Baltimore Police Chief Asks Public to Help”
  4. The Sun, 5 August, 2019 – “4-Year-Old Baltimore Suffered Untreated Burns Before Mother Put Body in Dumpster”
  5. The Sun, 6 August, 2019 – “4-Year-Old Baltimore Boy Suffered Untreated Burns”
  6. The Sun, 7 August, 2019 – “4-Year-Old Boy Mourned at Vigil”
  7. The Sun, 7 August, 2019 – “Foster Mom Questions Why Baltimore 4-Year-Old Was Returned to Parents”
  8. The Sun, 14 August, 2019 – “Farewell for a Superhero”
  9. The Sun, 13 August, 2019 – “Baltimore Mourners Gather for 4-Year-Old”
  10. The Sun, 10 August, 2021 – “East Baltimore Woman Sentenced for Scalding Her Four-Year-Old Son”
  11. The Sun, 9 May, 2023 – “Spouse of Baltimore Mother Pleads Guilty”
  12. The Baltimore Banner, 6 December, 2023 – “Baltimore Woman Sentenced in Death”

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Scot
Scot
1 month ago

By 2020 stats over 4 children die a day due to abuse and neglect in the US.

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