Girlfriend: Father charged in 5-year-old's choking death already punished enough
Posted February 3, 2020 3:57 p.m. EST
Updated February 3, 2020 7:50 p.m. EST
Raleigh, N.C. — A woman who was arrested along with her boyfriend last week in connection with the death of his 5-year-old daughter says the girl's death was an accident and that her father has already suffered enough.
Jermaine Kareem Rhyne, 24, and Tiffany Takoa Valentine, 36, both of 3640 Tule Spring St., are each charged with two felony counts of negligent child abuse resulting in serious bodily injury. Rhyne remains in the Wake County jail under $100,000 bond, while Valentine posted bond and was released.
Rhyne's daughter, Jassica Steele, died Jan. 21. Family members said she had eaten a rubber suction cup used to hang something on a wall at home and suffocated while the rest of the family slept.
"I was hearing screaming," Valentine said Monday, recalling that Rhyne found the girl dead in their walk-in closet that morning and then laid her lifeless body on their bed.
"I just ran into the room. I didn't believe him," Valentine said. "I thought maybe he didn't know what he was talking about."
The couple tried to revive the girl but couldn't. Paramedics also were unable to save her.
Valentine said the family had no idea how Jassica died until an autopsy revealed the suction cup in her throat. Valentine said she purchased suction cups to hang Christmas stockings, but the stockings were too heavy, so she put the cups away. She said she has no idea how Jassica found them.
She said she believes the girl's death was a tragic accident, noting that she chewed on everything, from her toys to the blinds in her bedroom.
"I had no idea because they would always close [the blinds] back," she said. "She just had a thing with putting things in her mouth."
Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman has said Jassica's death is still under investigation, and authorities haven't yet ruled whether it was an accident.
"I am really hurt that this little girl is gone, but I don't feel like this is an act of negligence," Valentine said.
She and Rhyne also were charged in a Jan. 8 incident in which Jassica burned her hands on a space heater in the home. Warrants state they weren't watching her and then failed to get her needed medical attention.
Valentine said the child went into a room she was not supposed to be in, and that, when they discovered the minor burns, they treated them, and she was fine.
Rhyne worked hard to get custody of Jassica and his three other children – a 7-year-old girl and twin 6-year-old boys – in New York, Valentine said. The children were in and out of foster care in New York during the long legal battle, family members said.
The couple moved to North Carolina with their children – she has a 12-year-old daughter – last year, seeking a better life. Valentine said the family needs to be together to deal with Jassica's death.
"He loves his kids," she said of Rhyne. "He's a better father than my father. He's a better father than a lot of fathers I know, and that's the most attractive thing about him, the most mature thing about him.
"It really, really hurts that he's going through this," she added. "Even if they feel like he should be punished for anything, this is enough punishment for him – losing his daughter – because we're not the type of parents that ever wanted to bury our children. They're supposed to bury us."