Billboard the latest step in one aunt's quest for justice in child's death
Sarah Mullinix says all she wants is accountability and awareness — justice for, as she sees it, the child welfare system’s failure to pull her 2-year-old nephew Dante out of a dangerous situation before he died in 2018.
“They need to be held accountable; they’re no different than anybody else,” Mullinix said of York County Children, Youth and Family staff.
Mullinix is so determined in her cause that, nearly four years after Dante's death, she's leased a billboard to publicly call out the local CYF.
The ad went live around 8:45 Friday morning, in time for rush-hour traffic on I-83 to see her message accusing the agency of failing to respond to reports and complaints about abuse and health issues involving her nephew in the weeks before he died at a hospital in mid-September 2018.
The debut also came 10 days before Tyree Bowie, the man charged in Dante’s death, is scheduled to go to trial on charges of first- and third-degree murder and endangering the welfare of a child. Leah Mullinix, Dante’s mother and Sarah Mullinix’s sister, also remains charged with child endangerment stemming from the boy’s death.
Sarah Mullinix’s sign features photos of Dante on a blaring red background and a first-person statement as if he’s speaking to drivers.
“I was murdered because York County Children Youth and Families left me to die — even though a forensic nurse told them I should be taken 4 days prior. Why didn’t my life matter,” the billboard reads.
County and state administrators declined to comment on the sign’s content.
“We don’t comment on ongoing litigation,” said York County spokesperson Ted Czech, speaking on behalf of the CYF department.
Czech was referring to a civil suit Sarah Mullinix is pursuing.
Pennsylvania’s Department of Human Services, which oversees child welfare offices statewide, likewise did not weigh in on the case.
“Per the Child Protective Services Law, child abuse reports and investigations are confidential. DHS can neither confirm nor deny specific child abuse reports or investigations,” Brandon Cwalina, DHS spokesperson, wrote.
Privacy policies make it difficult to track Dante's path through the child welfare system, but both the offices in Adams and York counties received several referrals in the case between 2017 and 2018, according to state reports.
Staff at a shelter where Leah Mullinix and Dante stayed had filed a child abuse report on Sept. 1, 2018, with concerns about the child receiving inadequate medical care for an infection. CYF staff responded the next day and had Leah fill prescriptions. According to a state report, staff spoke with Dante’s family a few days later, but it's unclear what precisely happened — or should have happened — next.
Sarah Mullinix filed for custody of Dante in Adams County, but her sister didn’t appear in court for a Sept. 5 hearing, and the case was rescheduled to that October, according to court records she shared.
According to police reports, Dante was admitted to the hospital on Sept. 6, fell unconscious and died about a week later.
Apart from the Mullinix case, York County's child welfare office has faced scrutiny for years due to short-staffing that employees said risked the safety of children they're sworn to protect.
"The concern is we’re going to have some dead children," one former worker told The Dispatch in October, "and some issues coming up because we’re not checking in (on children), not spending the time. We don’t have the time."
Leasing the billboard was the latest step in Sarah Mullinix’s activism. She’s run a Facebook page, “Justice For Dante,” since September 2018 devoted to the boy’s memory and raising awareness of changes she says are needed in the welfare system. In January 2021, she was charged criminally in a local case with posting images from Bowie’s case. She said the case against her was later dismissed.
Sarah Mullinix also is the plaintiff in a civil suit she filed last September against York County District Attorney David Sunday and Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro.
She also once tried to pursue a wrongful death lawsuit but said the statute of limitations on such a case had passed. That case would’ve also amounted to an expensive financial cost, she indicated.
“When you’re just one person, what’s the best way to do it? Get a billboard,” she said.
She raised about $500 through a GoFundMe campaign and another $1,000 from a supporter’s donation to lease the billboard for $1,500. Mullinix said an agent at Trone Outdoor Advertising knocked nearly $300 off the $1,795 total cost to also help out.
The lease will run for a month, she said, unless she can raise more money to keep the message going. The ad is on the east side of I-83, facing toward southbound traffic about a mile-and-a-half north of Exit 24 at Emigsville.
Trone’s website shows the lighted billboard is 378 square feet with dimensions of 10-feet, 6-inches by 36 feet.
Since going live, Mullinix has received multiple comments to posts on the “Justice For Dante” page. Several people, she said, spoke out in support of putting a better spotlight on CYF, or with complaints about department services and responses to reports.
“No one’s ever stood up to them because a lot of people are scared of them,” she said.