By FELICIA FONSECA
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — Richard Blodgett, a single father, was jailed on a drug charge when a worker from Arizona’s child welfare agency delivered the news: His son was brain dead and on life support — just days after being taken into state custody.
Blodgett screamed, cried and screamed some more. Jakob was his only son, a “darn cute,” curious 9-year-old who loved remote control cars and video games.
Blodgett is now struggling to understand how it happened.
A medical examiner listed Jakob’s death in late December as natural with complications from diabetes, a condition he was diagnosed with as a toddler. Specifically, Type 1 diabetes, which means his body was unable to produce enough insulin to survive.
Blodgett said he suspects the Arizona Department of Child Safety failed in its duty to protect his son, either by not monitoring his blood sugar levels or not ensuring that Jakob had enough insulin to prevent a serious, life-threatening complication known as ketoacidosis.
“They couldn’t keep him alive for two weeks, two weeks,” the father told The Associated Press while on a recent furlough from jail. “That’s absolutely insane. That was my pride and joy. I’m lost. I’m completely lost. My family is completely lost.”
The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office is investigating Jakob’s death. The office declined a request for an interview with Sheriff Paul Penzone, citing the ongoing investigation.
The Department of Child Safety also declined to comment specifically on the case, citing confidentiality laws. But spokesperson Darren DaRonco said, in general, that foster parents are required to receive training from a medical provider before taking in a child with any medical condition.
DaRonco did not respond to further inquiries, including whether Jakob’s insulin pump was removed and if the boy’s regular doctor was consulted about his care — questions raised by Blodgett and his mother, Cheryl Doenges. They said Jakob could not manage the insulin on his own.
In the fiscal year that ended last June, about 26 children died while in the agency’s custody, including from overdoses, medical conditions, natural and still undetermined causes. In the previous fiscal year, that number was 14. The figures amount to a fatality rate of about 97 per 100,000 children during that period, the most recent for which data is available.
That rate is higher than overall deaths of children in Arizona. Nationally, about 55 children died per 100,000 children in the general population of all causes in 2020 — similar to Arizona’s number.
Karin Kline, director of child welfare initiatives at the Family Involvement Center in Phoenix, said the death of a child is a concern, especially if it happens under the custody of the state.
“Rest assured, somebody is going to look into it if there’s an inkling that the death was a result of negligence or abuse,” she said.
Jakob and his father had been living at a motel when Blodgett was arrested in December. Blodgett, who already had a drug case pending and has spent time in prison, said was operating a backhoe much of the day and pulled over at a gas station to take a nap. The report from the Show Low Police Department corroborated as much, but officers wrote that they suspected Blodgett nodded off as a result of drug use.
Authorities ultimately found more than 4,000 fentanyl pills in Blodgett’s possession, according to the report. Blodgett was booked into jail in Holbrook and charged with one count of drug possession, Navajo County Superior Court documents show.
Blodgett told the AP he had been using fentanyl for pain management after he dropped 300 pounds with weight loss surgery.
“I wasn’t getting high. I wasn’t abusing them. I was using them to be able to work and provide for my son,” Blodgett said. “Unfortunately, they are illegal. I can’t get around that. But they were stronger than my meds, and they were working.”
Jakob was alone in the motel room when an officer picked him up and alerted the Department of Child Safety, according to the police report. Blodgett said someone at the motel always checked on his son, whom he called as police confronted him.
He told Jakob he got into trouble, and the boy asked if his father was going to be OK, Blodgett said. The two often traveled together in vast expanses of Arizona — taking selfies, stopping at gas stations to get snacks and playing with Nerf guns.
“The last time I got to see my son, he was already dead,” Blodgett said.
Doenges couldn’t make the trip to see Jakob at the hospital from Washington state where she lives because of bad weather. But she asked a friend in Arizona to sit with Jakob, pray with him and play music for him so he wasn’t alone — even if he didn’t know she was there.
Furloughed from jail, Blodgett arranged for a ride to Phoenix, more than three hours away, to see his son unresponsive in a hospital bed. Hospital staff had placed a teddy bear next to the boy and a heart-shaped pendant — Blodgett kept one half and the other half will be cremated with Jakob, Doenges said.
Blodgett took pictures, hugged and kissed his son and talked to him. The hospital had a memorial for Jakob on Dec. 26 — the day some of his organs were harvested and later donated with Blodgett’s blessing, along with a moment of silence.
Before the year ended, Blodgett was back in jail.
Doenges said her son will have to find a way to piece his life back together.
“My suggestion to him is to live a really good life in memory of Jakob and do something positive,” she said. “He probably didn’t even hear me, he’s so full of grief.”
Associated Press data journalist Camille Fassett in Seattle contributed to this report.