Toddler’s death leads to push for new law on emergency custody hearings

Crime

Malakai Garrett's tragic death may result in changes to the system

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – Lantz Garrett, father of 2-year-old Malakai Garrett, who died four years ago at the hands of his mother’s boyfriend, still talks to his son at his grave.

“Nobody should have to endure what I go through on a day-to-day basis,” Garrett said in an interview this week. “There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think of him.”

Malakai Garrett

But his grief over a situation that left him powerless to remove his son from the harm that killed him has made Garrett determined to keep other families from suffering the same fate.

A child wrongful death lawsuit is pending in Allen Superior Court against the Indiana Department of Child Services, Amber Garrett, who is Malakai’s mother, and Mitchell Vanryn, Amber’s live-in boyfriend and primary caretaker.

“Basically we felt we were owed something,” Garrett said. Once the lawsuit is over, Garrett will fight for Malakai’s Law with Justice4Malakai, a local grassroots activist Facebook group that has been at the side of Garrett and his family since the toddler died.

A vigil Monday at Headwaters Park is part of an effort to keep Malakai’s name alive and to bring change to a system he believes failed his son.

Vigil to remember Malakai at Headwaters Park on Monday. (Photo Courtesy Jessica Trouten)

Four years ago on Nov. 29, Malakai died after Vanryn rushed his limp and bruised body to the nearest fire station on North Clinton Street on that Wednesday afternoon. Malakai died at a local hospital.

Forensic doctors determined he died from severe injuries to his internal organs consistent with multiple blows and strikes from a closed fist.

Malakai’s law would require speedy hearings on emergency custody cases, something which took months in Garrett’s case. He filed for an emergency custody hearing in the summer of 2017, after Malakai’s mother, Amber Garrett, filed a no contact order preventing Garrett from seeing his son.

The custody hearing was scheduled for Dec. 10, 2017 – about two weeks after Malakai died.

The hearing “should have been in front of a judge within 72 hours. That would have saved him,” Garrett said.

As the situation deteriorated at 6902 Palmetta Court in northeast Fort Wayne where Malakai lived with his mother, Vanryn and his 7-year-old step-sister, Kaydence, Garrett’s family’s concern grew greater.

Malakai’s great-grandmother, Margaret Easterly, contacted DCS again after she stopped by for a call around Halloween and noticed that Malakai had changed from a healthy little toddler to one showing signs of malnourishment. Garrett said his cheeks were “hollowed out” and his neck and wrists were dramatically thinner. When Malakai was buried he wore a size 2T. Before he was in 4T and 5T sized clothing.

Malakai Garrett pictured on the left in summer of 2017 and on the right a few months later at Halloween of that same year.

Social media posts by Amber Garrett alarmed Garrett and his family. In one video posted just prior to Malakai’s death, Malakai is lying next to her in bed telling her “Mitch hit my head.”

Up until Malakai’s death, the family’s concerns were ignored by Department of Child Services, law enforcement and doctors, according a DCS report obtained about a year later by WANE-TV through a Freedom of Information Act request to the state agency.

Vanryn, 29 at the time of Malakai’s death,  was sentenced to 40 years in prison for domestic battery death to a person under 14 and aggravated battery; Amber Garrett, then 27, got six years for neglect.

Malakai Garrett’s grave in Oakwood Cemetery. (Courtesy: Lantz Garrett)

Garrett is left visiting Malakai at Oakwood Cemetery in Kosciusko County. Garrett calls it Malakai’s “place of peace.

“I sit there and we talk and play with Hot Wheels. His whole headstone is lined with cars.”

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