I-Team: Advocates: Expanding ‘Safe Haven Law’ could prevent child abuse deaths

DAYTON — While an I-team investigation is revealing no documented evidence proves Brittany Gosney’s claim after murdering her son – she had attempted to legally give up custody of 6-year-old James Hamilton and his two siblings – advocates say we should learn from Hutchinson’s story by considering expanding so called ‘Safe Haven Laws’ to include older children.

A forever memorial for the murdered little boy sits near the playground of Middletown’s Rosa Parks Elementary School.

>> I-Team: Could Middletown mother have legally surrendered kids to state before son’s death?

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>> Timeline: How the investigation into James Hutchinson’s death unfolded

“It’s a reminder of him,” Principal, Tracy Neeley, said. “It’s a reminder of his spirit. It’s a reminder of his life.”

To this community, Hutchinson’s memorial bench symbolizes something close to a headstone.

“That was all community effort,” Neeley said of the bench. “The community reached out to me and said, ‘Hey, we really want to do something. What do you think?’ And they designed it. They did fundraising for it. And they installed it for us. It was a complete community effort. Just rallying around to give James a space to be remembered and to be grieved.”

Neeley remembers the 6-year-old spending kindergarten and first grade at Rosa Parks. Neeley smiles when she is asked about the kind of student and the kind of person Hutchinson was.

“Even when we were in COVID protocols and came back from virtual and we stopped the high fives and the hugs and stuff, he would always sneak one in anyways,” Neeley recalled with a laugh.

At Gosney’s September sentencing, Neeley read a victim impact statement.

“James was a member of our Rosa Parks family for a very short time. While was small, he touched all of our hearts with his red hair and his bright eyes,” Neeley said during the sentencing of the little boy she remembers as a ‘bright light.’

The News Center 7 I-Team has previously reported Gosney told police what led to the murder was pressure from her boyfriend, James Hamilton, to abandon Hutchinson and his older brother and sister.

In copies of Gosney’s police interrogations, obtained by the I-Team through a public records request, Gosney tells Middletown detectives at one point, “And he (Hamilton) just said, ‘I don’t care (what you do with the children). Get rid of ‘em. Do something with them.’”

During Hamilton March police interview he admitted that.

“I kept telling her she need to do something with them,” Hamilton told a detective sitting across a table from him in a police interrogation room at the Middletown Police Department. “You need to do something with them, I don’t care what.’”

There is also Gosney’s claim to Middletown detectives, before moving from a Miami Township hotel to Middletown and murdering her son, her call to Children Services was ignored.

As the I-Team has previously reported, Gosney told the forensic psychologist who evaluated her competency she was sexually abused and became pregnant when she was 12-years-old. That is key context because she said in court documents she was told she was ‘too young’ to have that child and put her daughter up for adoption. Then, in Goseny’s version of the story, 17 years later, she claimed she reached out to Montgomery County Children Services for help legally giving up custody of her kids.

During an hours-long interrogation on March 1, then Middletown Deputy Police Chief Scott Reeve, told Gosney, “You put (your first daughter) up for adoption, a family took her in and hopefully she’s doing well. But these kids, you’re doing it different to get rid of ‘em. You’re abandoning them at Rush Run (Wildlife Area).”

“Well, I had tried to,” Gosney then claimed before later telling Reeve, “I even called them myself,” referring to Children Services.

As Reeve asks Gosney to explain more, the two have the following exchange inside the Middletown Police Department’s detective conference room on March 1:

Reeve: “Do you know what this family services organization? Was it ...”

Gosney: “Montgomery.”

Reeve: “Montgomery.”

Gosney: “Yeah.”

Reeve: “Montgomery County?”

Gosney: “Yes.”

Reeve: “OK ... so you had called them when while you were living in a motel. Family services in Montgomery County. Was your intention to do like you had done with (your first child)?”

Gosney: “Yes.”

Reeve: “Mmm hmm. OK. But that didn’t work. Because they had to open a case and James -- big James (Hamilton) -- didn’t want you to do that?”

Gosney: “Yes.”

The I-Team asked Butler County Prosecuting Attorney, Mike Gmoser, whether Gosney called Montgomery County Children Services, as she claimed to police.

“It did not happen,” Gmoser said. “There was no evidence that we could find to support her statement.”

Despite Gosney’s claims, Gmoser added, she also never searched the internet or called her local fire station about giving up custody.

At another point in the March 1 interrogation, Gosney told Middletown police, “I looked it up on the web site, ‘Where can you take your children where they will be safe and you will not get in trouble for it?’ And it said, your local fire station ... I was going to take them to – I was told you could take them to the fire station – the local fire station and drop them off. It will be safe there.”

“OK. That would have been a good plan,” Reeve replied.

Then Gosney said, “But when I had called around, they told me I couldn’t do that – I was still abandoning my children.”

“That that didn’t happen (either),” Gmoser told Bedell. “At least we didn’t have any evidence of it.”

Public records requests, filed by the I-Team with both the Butler County Prosecutor’s Office and Montgomery County Children Services, show there are no records to support Gosney’s claims.

“I think that in her mind, she did what she thought could be done,” Gosney’s defense lawyer David Washington said. “I don’t think there’s any documentation that this point. I have tried to find that myself and I haven’t been able to.”

Washington said the big picture point he is trying to make in the case’s aftermath is there should be a system for parents who feel they’re overwhelmed with their children and want to give up custody.

“If someone makes a minimum effort to say that they are overwhelmed, or that they can’t deal with their children or their child, even a minimum effort should be responded to,” Washington told WHIO after a judge sentenced Gosney in September.

“I’m not saying that she did everything that she could have done. I didn’t say that. Because certainly there are other options to the one that she chose. But what I’m saying is: even if there’s a minimal effort or someone receives information to that degree where they’re looking to relinquish their children, I think that there’s got to be a hand on the other side to try and pull them in. And that’s the point I’m trying to make,” Washington added.

“Typically, people have family members that they can use or take the children,” former Montgomery County Sheriff and current state Rep. Phil Plummer also said. “Sometimes they don’t. So maybe I need to expand that law and have safe haven places for older children.”

Plummer told the I-Team in May a law change, something similar to Ohio’s Safe Haven Law, which, right now, allows birth parents to give up custody of newborns up to 30-days-old without penalty, should be looked at and possibly expanded to include older children.

The I-Team’s John Bedell asked Plummer at the Statehouse in Columbus last month, “Do you still think that sort of reform plan could help save another child like James Hutchinson in the future?”

“Yeah, absolutely,” Plummer replied. “And I’ll look into that immediately.”

The I-Team also asked Gmoser for his thoughts on a potential reform plan that would expand Ohio’s Safe Haven Law to include older children.

“I believe that we have to consider every situation and try to ameliorate as best we can the type of thing that happened with the Gosney case,” Gmoser said.

“And if that means that when people are so stressed that they cannot deal with it and children are going to be injured or murdered, there should be something that society is able to do to slow that down or stop it entirely...Sometimes the laws need to be adjusted so that better things can happen. And (so) we don’t have a Gosney repeat, or a Hamilton repeat. And we don’t have little James dead at three o’clock in the morning out in a forest preserve in the winter time holding onto a car crying for his mother,” Gmoser added.

“The Gosney case, fortunately, is an aberration,” Gmoser said. “But still, it can happen again. And if it’s going to happen again, maybe we can consider how we can avoid it. That’s all I’m saying.”

Back in Middletown, at a place that will always remind Tracy Neeley of James Hutchinson’s memory, the Rosa Parks Elementary principal is passionate about making sure little James’ death is not in vein.

“We get wrapped up in the case, or the details of the case. And we lose sight there’s a kid involved in this” Neeley said. “I hope it brings a light to issues of child abuse in our community and across our region and our state,”

The I-Team will continue to update you on the progress of any Safe Haven Law expansion bills introduced at the Statehouse in Columbus

A forever memorial for the murdered little boy sits near the playground of Middletown’s Rosa Parks Elementary School.

“It’s a reminder of him,” Principal, Tracy Neeley, said. “It’s a reminder of his spirit. It’s a reminder of his life.”

To this community, Hutchinson’s memorial bench symbolizes something close to a headstone.

“That was all community effort,” Neeley said of the bench. “The community reached out to me and said, ‘Hey, we really want to do something. What do you think?’ And they designed it. They did fundraising for it. And they installed it for us. It was a complete community effort. Just rallying around to give James a space to be remembered and to be grieved.”

Neeley remembers the 6-year-old spending kindergarten and first grade at Rosa Parks. Neeley smiles when she is asked about the kind of student and the kind of person Hutchinson was.

“Even when we were in COVID protocols and came back from virtual and we stopped the high fives and the hugs and stuff, he would always sneak one in anyways,” Neeley recalled with a laugh.

At Gosney’s September sentencing, Neeley read a victim impact statement.

“James was a member of our Rosa Parks family for a very short time. While was small, he touched all of our hearts with his red hair and his bright eyes,” Neeley said during the sentencing of the little boy she remembers as a ‘bright light.’

The News Center 7 I-Team has previously reported Gosney told police what led to the murder was pressure from her boyfriend, James Hamilton, to abandon Hutchinson and his older brother and sister.

In copies of Gosney’s police interrogations, obtained by the I-Team through a public records request, Gosney tells Middletown detectives at one point, “And he (Hamilton) just said, ‘I don’t care (what you do with the children). Get rid of ‘em. Do something with them.’”

During Hamilton March police interview he admitted that.

“I kept telling her she need to do something with them,” Hamilton told a detective sitting across a table from him in a police interrogation room at the Middletown Police Department. “You need to do something with them, I don’t care what.’”

There is also Gosney’s claim to Middletown detectives, before moving from a Miami Township hotel to Middletown and murdering her son, her call to Children Services was ignored.

As the I-Team has previously reported, Gosney told the forensic psychologist who evaluated her competency she was sexually abused and became pregnant when she was 12-years-old. That is key context because she said in court documents she was told she was ‘too young’ to have that child and put her daughter up for adoption. Then, in Goseny’s version of the story, 17 years later, she claimed she reached out to Montgomery County Children Services for help legally giving up custody of her kids.

During an hours-long interrogation on March 1, then Middletown Deputy Police Chief Scott Reeve, told Gosney, “You put (your first daughter) up for adoption, a family took her in and hopefully she’s doing well. But these kids, you’re doing it different to get rid of ‘em. You’re abandoning them at Rush Run (Wildlife Area).”

“Well, I had tried to,” Gosney then claimed before later telling Reeve, “I even called them myself,” referring to Children Services.

As Reeve asks Gosney to explain more, the two have the following exchange inside the Middletown Police Department’s detective conference room on March 1:

Reeve: “Do you know what this family services organization? Was it ...”

Gosney: “Montgomery.”

Reeve: “Montgomery.”

Gosney: “Yeah.”

Reeve: “Montgomery County?”

Gosney: “Yes.”

Reeve: “OK ... so you had called them when while you were living in a motel. Family services in Montgomery County. Was your intention to do like you had done with (your first child)?”

Gosney: “Yes.”

Reeve: “Mmm hmm. OK. But that didn’t work. Because they had to open a case and James -- big James (Hamilton) -- didn’t want you to do that?”

Gosney: “Yes.”

The I-Team asked Butler County Prosecuting Attorney, Mike Gmoser, whether Gosney called Montgomery County Children Services, as she claimed to police.

“It did not happen,” Gmoser said. “There was no evidence that we could find to support her statement.”

Despite Gosney’s claims, Gmoser added, she also never searched the internet or called her local fire station about giving up custody.

At another point in the March 1 interrogation, Gosney told Middletown police, “I looked it up on the web site, ‘Where can you take your children where they will be safe and you will not get in trouble for it?’ And it said, your local fire station ... I was going to take them to – I was told you could take them to the fire station – the local fire station and drop them off. It will be safe there.”

“OK. That would have been a good plan,” Reeve replied.

Then Gosney said, “But when I had called around, they told me I couldn’t do that – I was still abandoning my children.”

“That that didn’t happen (either),” Gmoser told Bedell. “At least we didn’t have any evidence of it.”

Public records requests, filed by the I-Team with both the Butler County Prosecutor’s Office and Montgomery County Children Services, show there are no records to support Gosney’s claims.

“I think that in her mind, she did what she thought could be done,” Gosney’s defense lawyer David Washington said. “I don’t think there’s any documentation that this point. I have tried to find that myself and I haven’t been able to.”

Washington said the big picture point he is trying to make in the case’s aftermath is there should be a system for parents who feel they’re overwhelmed with their children and want to give up custody.

“If someone makes a minimum effort to say that they are overwhelmed, or that they can’t deal with their children or their child, even a minimum effort should be responded to,” Washington told WHIO after a judge sentenced Gosney in September.

“I’m not saying that she did everything that she could have done. I didn’t say that. Because certainly there are other options to the one that she chose. But what I’m saying is: even if there’s a minimal effort or someone receives information to that degree where they’re looking to relinquish their children, I think that there’s got to be a hand on the other side to try and pull them in. And that’s the point I’m trying to make,” Washington added.

“Typically, people have family members that they can use or take the children,” former Montgomery County Sheriff and current state Rep. Phil Plummer also said. “Sometimes they don’t. So maybe I need to expand that law and have safe haven places for older children.”

Plummer told the I-Team in May a law change, something similar to Ohio’s Safe Haven Law, which, right now, allows birth parents to give up custody of newborns up to 30-days-old without penalty, should be looked at and possibly expanded to include older children.

The I-Team’s John Bedell asked Plummer at the Statehouse in Columbus last month, “Do you still think that sort of reform plan could help save another child like James Hutchinson in the future?”

“Yeah, absolutely,” Plummer replied. “And I’ll look into that immediately.”

The I-Team also asked Gmoser for his thoughts on a potential reform plan that would expand Ohio’s Safe Haven Law to include older children.

“I believe that we have to consider every situation and try to ameliorate as best we can the type of thing that happened with the Gosney case,” Gmoser said.

“And if that means that when people are so stressed that they cannot deal with it and children are going to be injured or murdered, there should be something that society is able to do to slow that down or stop it entirely...Sometimes the laws need to be adjusted so that better things can happen. And (so) we don’t have a Gosney repeat, or a Hamilton repeat. And we don’t have little James dead at three o’clock in the morning out in a forest preserve in the winter time holding onto a car crying for his mother,” Gmoser added.

“The Gosney case, fortunately, is an aberration,” Gmoser said. “But still, it can happen again. And if it’s going to happen again, maybe we can consider how we can avoid it. That’s all I’m saying.”

Back in Middletown, at a place that will always remind Tracy Neeley of James Hutchinson’s memory, the Rosa Parks Elementary principal is passionate about making sure little James’ death is not in vein.

“We get wrapped up in the case, or the details of the case. And we lose sight there’s a kid involved in this” Neeley said. “I hope it brings a light to issues of child abuse in our community and across our region and our state,”

The I-Team will continue to update you on the progress of any Safe Haven Law expansion bills introduced at the Statehouse in Columbus