Questions raised into DHS placement of 2-year-old who was allegedly murdered

Tytianna Hawthorne, Sul'Yah's biological mother, objected to the DHS placement of her daughter to no avail.

ByChad Pradelli and Cheryl Mettendorf WPVI logo
Wednesday, August 16, 2023
Questions raised into DHS placement of girl who was allegedly murdered
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According to an autopsy and DHS investigative files, the girl was beaten and found unresponsive and covered head to toe in bruises.

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- A two-year-old girl was killed in February.

She was beaten to death, but her death didn't make headlines in Philadelphia. It happened while she was in a placement through the Philadelphia Department of Human Services.

Two weeks ago, police made an arrest in the case. However, the child's biological mother questions why it took nearly six months when she says it seemed clear to her who was responsible.

Two-year-old Sul'Yah Williams was a vibrant little girl with a big smile.

According to an autopsy and DHS investigative files, she was beaten and found unresponsive and covered head to toe in bruises that did not make sense for a two-year-old.

At the time of her death, Sul'yah was living with 23-year-old Denaejah Harper, and her partner, 24-year-old Diamond Joyner.

Sul'Yah Williams

Tytianna Hawthorne, Sul'Yah's biological mother, objected to the DHS placement of her daughter to no avail.

"How have the last couple of months been for you? How have you been handling it?" asked 6abc reporter Chad Pradelli.

"It's hard," said Hawthorne.

An autopsy report showed Sul'Yah died from multiple blunt impact injuries that included contusions to the intestines and bleeding on the brain.

"This is a 2-year-old girl who was murdered in her home," said Attorney AJ Thomson.

Thomson represents the two-year-old's estate.

He said Harper is the one who initiated a DHS investigation in 2021. He said the child's mother was told by DHS that Harper called the agency reporting burn marks on the girl that she said she saw on Instagram.

DHS then began investigating.

"You can just call DHS on somebody in the city. Now some people do it just to get back at somebody," said Thomson. "But here it seems that the motivation was to become the parent. How'd that work out?"

Hawthorne said she first met Harper briefly while both lived in a group home nearly seven years ago and said the two had almost no interaction since.

After that initial 2021 investigation, the child was placed with Harper who, according to DHS records, claimed to be a maternal aunt, which she's not.

Her lawyer is suing a city subcontractor saying the agency's negligence in investigating led to the tragic placement of the child.

"It defies credulity that this person who claims to be a maternal aunt is not, and makes up the story to get DHS involved," said Thomson.

Harper was given custody not once but twice.

Several months later, doctors determined Sul'Yah was not burned at all but those marks were instead a skin condition.

A judge ordered custody to Sul'Yah's biological father at the end of 2021. What happens over the next five months is hard to pin down, but Sul'Yah lived with her father's family during this time.

Then in May of 2022, Harper again petitions for custody, and in January 2023 gets it.

One week later, Sul'Yah passes away.

According to interviews in DHS investigative files, on the night of her death, Sul'Yah was home with Harper's partner, Joyner, and Joyner's young nephew while Harper worked.

DHS files also reveal the little boy told investigators Joyner kicked Sul'Yah twice when she didn't clean up her toys and that she began foaming at the mouth.

The two-year-old died a few hours later at the hospital.

In interviews with investigators, Joyner denied kicking the child.

The medical examiner ruled it a homicide.

"Do you believe your daughter would still be alive if she wasn't placed in DHS care?" asked Chad Pradelli.

"Yes I do," said Hawthorne.

We reached a woman by phone who claimed to be Harper. She would not answer questions.

Through her attorney, Joyner said she's innocent.

She's charged with murder and due in court on August 15.

DHS had no comment to Action News.