HOMESTEAD, Fla. – A small crowd gathered on Friday night with candles and balloons under a tree in Homestead. They were honoring the memory of a teenage boy who tried to keep his siblings together, while his mom struggled with drug addiction.
Takiva Brown, a recovering addict, was distraught. Her son, Jeremiah Hightower, 14, died on Wednesday night. He was in a car with a driver that was trying to get away from Homestead police officers. The driver crashed into the tree. Hightower wasn't supposed to be there.
The Florida Department of Children and Families was supposed to be watching over him, Brown said. And it wasn't the first time they had failed him.
"The system has to get better, so another child and parent doesn't have to go through what I am going through," Brown said.
DCF didn't confirm if the boy was in their custody. Instead, DCF spokeswoman Jessica Sims released a statement.
"We are greatly saddened by the death of this teen, and our hearts go out to his family and all those who cared for him," the statement said.
Brown said Jeremiah suffered while she was struggling with drug addiction. She said she was sober now and was back in school with the goal of reuniting the family. At the vigil, she prayed: God "guide me as a mother."
Brown said she lost custody of her five children while she was living on the streets and struggling with drugs.
According to DCF Jeremiah first ran away from a Children's Home Society office in Cutler Bay on October 2015. He was with his little brother and three sisters. The youngest were ages 5 and 6. They walked back to the Florida City home that authorities had deemed unsafe for them.
Social workers couldn't help Jeremiah. Police officers believe he eventually found bad company. Homestead police officers suspected he was part of a group of teens robbing victims in the area of Northwest 15th Street and Krome Avenue in Homestead.
Jeremiah was in a car fitting the description of the getaway vehicle. A police chase ended under a tree at 1500 Palm Drive. Brown's son was sitting in the front passenger seat. Doctors at the Kendall Regional Medical Center pronounced him dead.
"I saw them work on him until he took his last breath," Brown said. "And they pulled the cord, and they closed the curtain."
Brown said she wants to stay on track to be there for her other four children. Meanwhile, the teens who were with Jeremiah at the time of the crash face first-degree murder charges in Jeremiah's death.