Ethan Okula lies in an unmarked grave near the bottom of a shadeless slope in Merion Memorial Park, a modest cemetery in Bala Cynwyd.

He was buried by those who failed him. By the city agency charged with his care. When he was buried in February by the Philadelphia Department of Human Services, whose custody he was in as a foster child, he was buried like a pauper.

Nothing to mark the life of a 10-year-old with a sweet smile who liked to draw and sing and dance. Nothing to note the life of a child who should not be dead. Just a nearby tree stump and patchy, sun-scorched grass. A final insult.

Gravedigger Russ Golden stood at the nearest headstone to Ethan's grave Thursday and counted off four paces. That's how you find Ethan now: counting off footsteps in the sun.

"Here," Golden said, spreading his arms to mark the spot where he had dug Ethan's grave. "Here it is."

Last week, I wrote about Ethan's short, cruel life.

He was born intellectually impaired and bounced through foster homes after his father beat him and his brother. Again and again, he slipped through the cracks.

When he was taken to the school nurse at Julia De Burgos Elementary in February, unable to stand from stomach pain caused by a medical condition, the nurse failed to get him help.

His foster mother refused to pick him up, according to a city review of Ethan's death. Instead, she sent a friend who only chastised the dying child. By the time his foster mother finally dialed 911 hours later, he was dead.

The stinging city review faulted the School District, the foster agency, and DHS for serious lapses in Ethan's care. People were fired and promises were made to do better.

Meanwhile, Ethan rests in obscurity.

To their credit, DHS officials reacted quickly when I called them about the lack of a headstone last week. They wrote new policy and offered more pledges to do better.

It was "clearly an oversight," said Alicia Taylor, a DHS spokeswoman.

A final oversight in a short life filled with them.

The agency had held a funeral for Ethan - one attended by grieving social workers, Taylor said. Most times, when a child dies in DHS care, there is family still in the child's life, she said. Ethan's parents had their parental rights terminated.

Ethan was the city's child. This is how they buried him.

"As the de facto parents, we should have purchased a tombstone," Taylor said.

Yes, they should have.

'A call for change'

In response to Ethan's case, acting DHS Commissioner Jessica Shapiro drafted a new policy Thursday increasing the amount of money available for funerals for children like Ethan who die in the agency's care. Now, it will include the price of a headstone, Taylor said.

It is a sad but apparently needed step.

"Ethan's story is a call for change for many of our departments and our School District," Mayor Kenney said in a statement Friday. "One of the more immediate steps we will take is to ensure that in those rare, horrible occasions when a child with no familial presence passes that they are given a proper burial."

The agency was now ordering Ethan a tombstone, Taylor said.

I told them they no longer needed to.

'The sweetest kid'

In the last week, I have received nearly 300 emails, phone calls, and messages on social media from readers offering to pay for Ethan's tombstone, or do what they could to chip in and help raise money for one.

Many were strangers wanting to help a child in death who wasn't helped in life.

Others had known Ethan. Teachers from Bache-Martin Elementary in Fairmount, where Ethan had been a student for a time, remembered a smiling boy who always ran off the bus excited to get to school.

They wanted to help, they said.

"Ethan was truly the sweetest kid with the biggest heart," wrote one of his former teachers, Melanie Sherer. "The only thing he wanted in the world was love and to make people happy."

When an owner of Merion Memorial Park read about Ethan in the newspaper, she cried. She had not known the story about the little boy buried in Lot 38, Grave 4. She opened her catalog and ordered an upright, granite stone. A handsome stone. She's donating it on behalf of the cemetery staff.

She will hold an unveiling if anyone wishes to pay respects. Perhaps, she said, those who wanted to donate could instead give to charities that help vulnerable children. She asked me not to publish her name because she didn't want publicity for her good deed.

"This is a special child to have suffered like that," she said Friday. "He had no one to defend him."

On the tombstone, above Ethan's name, and the dates of his birth and his death, she asked that these words be inscribed: "God's Special Child."

mnewall@phillynews.com

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