On Thursday, June 8, with just two weeks remaining in the 2023 school year, the 13-year-old foster child Ellie Alessandra Blake was enrolled as a seventh-grade student at the English High School, in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood.
Ellie’s foster parents had arrived at the Boston Public Schools Welcome Center with signed papers from a Department of Children and Families (D.C.F.) social worker confirming Ellie was in foster care—which, under federal law, mandated that the center immediately place her in a school.
On her first day at English High, a visibly nervous Ellie—petite, with her black hair with blond streaks pulled back into a ponytail—introduced herself to her classmates and said she was a Brazilian immigrant. They were immediately suspicious, as she looked far too old to be in the seventh grade. “The boys were teasing her,” Ellie’s classmate Shaila Wharton tells me, “because they said her face looked too old. One of the eighth-grade boys wanted to date her.”
Over the next few days, Ellie was mercilessly mocked about her age by the boys in her class, Shaila says. Painfully shy, she often burst into tears and fled to the bathroom, and another student would have to bring her back to class. On one occasion, she ran out of the school building and disappeared for the rest of the day.
On Wednesday, June 14, less than a week after Ellie started attending English High, a woman named Rebecca Bernat contacted the school claiming to be Ellie’s foster mother, and complained that her daughter was being bullied. A school administrator promptly met with Bernat and Ellie to address the bullying allegations.
A few hours later, a man named John A. Smith turned up at the school, saying he was Ellie’s foster father. He announced he was withdrawing Ellie from English High because of the bullying and said he would be moving her to Saint Columbkille Partnership School, a private Catholic school in nearby Brighton.
“The boys were teasing her because they said her face looked too old.”
At that point, Caitlin Murphy, the school principal, felt something was wrong, suspecting some kind of custodial issue between the foster parents. She called for Ellie’s enrollment paperwork and noticed that one of the D.C.F. forms was misspelled, reading, “Department of Children rind [sic] Families.”
A school administrator called the Department of Children and Families, asking to speak to Michelle Delfi, the D.C.F. social worker who had signed the enrollment papers. She was told no one by that name had ever worked there.
The principal then alerted the Boston Police, sparking an immediate human-trafficking investigation that revealed that “Ellie” was, in fact, a 32-year-old former D.C.F. social worker named Shelby Hewitt, who allegedly managed to worm her way into three different Boston schools over the last 10 months, using a variety of aliases and forged paperwork.
So why did Hewitt decide to go back to high school not once but several times in a matter of months? Was it a scam to get money? A folie à trois by her and fellow co-workers? A perverted love for teenagers? Or something else entirely?
High School No. 1
The real Shelby Hewitt was born on March 19, 1991, to Malcolm and Loreen Hewitt, of Canton, Massachusetts. She graduated from Sharon High School in 2009, before earning her undergraduate degree four years later, at Wheelock College. In 2016, Hewitt received her master’s of education in school counseling from the University of Massachusetts Boston.
The 25-year-old graduate then got a job as a social worker at the D.C.F., where she worked intermittently until February of this year. (The D.C.F. told me that it is “investigating” Hewitt’s wrongdoing in collaboration with the District Attorney’s Office.)
Hewitt’s first Freaky Friday moment came last fall, when, while still employed at the D.C.F., she used her social worker’s knowledge of the Boston school system to re-invent herself as a nervous 16-year-old called “Daneilla.”
A couple of weeks after the fall semester began, Daneilla enrolled at the Jeremiah E. Burke public high school, in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood, allegedly using D.C.F. documents to fast-track her place there as a foster child.
On her first day at Burke, Daneilla was befriended by Janell Lamons and Eve Henery, who took her under their wing. “We felt sorry for her,” Janell, 15, who was in Daneilla’s history, English-language arts, and math classes, tells me. “She said she was 16 and comes from a foster home, but didn’t get along with her foster mother. She told us she was Colombian, and English was her second language, although I never heard her speak Spanish, and she didn’t have an accent. She said she hated Burke because she considered it ghetto due to a recent shooting there.”
Over the next few months, the three classmates bonded, hanging out in the library, the locker room, and the cafeteria. Slowly, Daneilla relaxed and started opening up about her troubled life. She would become emotional as she tearfully confided to her friends how her real parents had both died of drug overdoses and she had been placed in foster care. A few weeks later, she changed her story, saying her father was serving time in prison.
Shelby Hewitt’s first Freaky Friday moment came when she used her social worker’s knowledge of the Boston school system to re-invent herself as a nervous 16-year-old called “Daneilla.”
“Daneilla was always complaining about her foster home,” Janell says. She also mentioned that Daneilla frequently had “emotional outbursts” at school and began skipping classes to wander up and down the hallways, often crying her eyes out.
Eventually, Daneilla started therapy with a Burke High School social worker. “She hated [her],” said Janell. “She always used to complain about her questions about how she was dealing with her emotions and her feelings about being in a foster home. She eventually stopped going to their sessions.”
Sixteen-year-old Isaiah Price once tried to comfort her after she told him she was homeless. “The way I looked at it,” Isaiah told The Boston Globe, “she was going through a lot at once.”
Despite her alleged troubles, Daneilla seemed to have sophisticated and expensive tastes. She favored the classic Gen Z getup of tank tops, sweatpants, and high-priced Jordan sneakers, and she turned heads one day when she arrived at school in an expensive new car, Janell tells me.
During the three months she spent at Burke, Daneilla joined the girls’ soccer and basketball teams. She even wore a No. 32 jersey, matching her real age. Sometimes, at games, an older man, who appeared to be her foster father, turned up to cheer her on. On media day, she refused to be photographed with her teammates, saying her foster parents wouldn’t approve.
Toward the end of the first semester, Janell and Eve starting telling Daneilla about how they wanted to transfer to the nearby Brighton High School. “So then Daneilla was like, ‘I heard it was a good school, and I might go there, too,’” Janell tells me.
In early May of this year, Daneilla left Burke High School to enroll at Brighton High—under another name.
“The way I looked at it, she was going through a lot at once.”
Little is known about Hewitt’s spell at Brighton, or why she decided to change schools for a third time, but on June 15, while Hewitt was still technically enrolled at English High School as 13-year-old Ellie Alessandra Blake, a joint task force comprising the Boston Police’s Human Trafficking and Internet Crimes Against Children Units and the Massachusetts State Police’s High Risk Victims Unit, armed with a search warrant, arrived at the Jamaica Plain apartment “Ellie” allegedly shared with her two “foster parents.”
When detectives searched Ellie’s bedroom, they found “falsely made, altered, or forged” documents from the D.C.F. and the Lowell Juvenile Court, which had been used to enroll Shelby into the three Boston public schools under her various aliases. The girl named in the forged Lowell Juvenile Court papers told detectives that she had never heard of Shelby Hewitt and had not given her permission to use her name.
Detectives also interviewed several ninth-graders at Burke High School, who all identified a sophomore-yearbook photograph of Hewitt, when she was a 16-year-old Sharon High School student, as the girl they knew as Daneilla.
Six days later, Hewitt checked herself into a psychiatric facility, according to a statement Hewitt’s real father gave to WCVB-TV.
On June 27, the Boston Police filed a criminal complaint in the West Roxbury Division of Boston Municipal Court, charging Hewitt with three counts of forgery of documents, two counts of false writing, and one count of identity fraud. If found guilty on all charges, Hewitt faces up to 44 years in prison.
The criminal complaint listed Hewitt’s two purported foster parents, John Smith and Rebecca Bernat, as “involved persons.” Amazingly, the 48-year-old Bernat is also a licensed clinical social worker with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s in social work, while Smith, also 48, seemingly has a successful career in business investment and financial services.
In the wake of the criminal complaint, Boston Public Schools (B.P.S.) superintendent Mary Skipper wrote a letter to the parents of the three schools Hewitt had infiltrated, saying that she’d been ordered to stay away from all B.P.S. campuses, and Boston mayor Michelle Wu appeared on WBUR-FM, where she called the situation “extremely disturbing.” Maura Healey, the governor of Massachusetts, even addressed the matter, telling reporters that “it’s obviously a really disturbing situation.” But parents whose children had been in class with the 32-year-old con woman were not assuaged.
“It’s mind-blowing,” Robin Williams, whose daughter Janell befriended Hewitt at Burke High, tells me. “For this young lady to sit among all these kids is very dangerous. We don’t know if she’s a child-molester or a rapist. We have no clue.”
After the story broke, Hewitt’s social-media posts were immediately taken down, but the Boston rumor mill has since gone into overdrive with unsubstantiated reports that she allegedly had sex with two 15-year-old boys at English High.
Venetta Wharton, whose daughter Shaila was in Hewitt’s class at English High, says, “I heard she had intercourse with one of the students.... I’m very much pissed off about it.”
The principal of Burke High, Amilcar Silva, refused to comment, as did English High’s Caitlin Murphy, both citing the ongoing police investigation. B.P.S. spokesperson Max Baker called the situation “deeply troubling” but would not comment further.
“Everyone is very hush-hush to the parents,” Wharton says, “when the fact is we were all victims.”
The question of Shelby Hewitt’s motive, meanwhile, remains unclear. “We all want to know why somebody that old would choose to go back to high school,” 18-year-old Janice Mendes, who played on the Burke Bulldogs basketball team with Hewitt, told the Boston Globe, “when we’re trying to get out of it.”
“I heard she had intercourse with one of the students.... I’m very much pissed off about it.”
Boston city councillor Erin Murphy, a former B.P.S. teacher who has called for a special city-council hearing on the matter, thinks Hewitt’s “intent was not good.... She wasn’t trying to return to high school to relive her glory days.”
Retired social worker Deborah Freund-Baldwin, who holds a master’s in social work and worked for almost four decades for Long Island’s Stony Brook University and Catholic Charities, believes Hewitt may have suffered some deep trauma in her past. “She might have wanted to heal and go back to school,” said Freund-Baldwin, “to reclaim herself by regressive behavior.”
Dr. JoAnn Rosen, who runs a private psychology practice and holds a master’s in mental health, thinks Hewitt may have severe mental issues. “It’s someone who was derailed in her life,” said Dr. Rosen, “with low self-esteem and trauma. She is retreating back to heal the loss in order to feel whole again.”
“She might have wanted to heal and go back to school to reclaim herself by regressive behavior.”
Shelby Hewitt’s is not the first case of an adult faking his or her age and identity to enroll in school.
In 1979, 22-year-old Rolling Stone writer Cameron Crowe, posing as 15-year-old Dave Cameron, enrolled for nine months at Clairemont High School, in San Diego, to research what would later become his 1982 hit movie, Fast Times at Ridgemont High. “It was like the senior I never had,” explained Crowe, who had graduated high school the first time around at age 15.
More puzzling was the 1993 case of 30-year-old Brian MacKinnon, who re-invented himself as 16-year-old Brandon Lee to become a pupil at the Bearsden Academy, in Glasgow. He spent two years as a student there, even starring as Lieutenant Cable in the school’s production of South Pacific, before it was revealed that he had actually graduated from Bearsden Academy under his real name 13 years earlier. (In 2022, MacKinnon’s story was made into an acclaimed documentary called My Old School, starring Alan Cumming, who lip-synched an audio interview given by MacKinnon, who did not want to be filmed. “There was no crime committed,” MacKinnon says in the documentary. “Technically.”)
In 2014, a 22-year-old Ukrainian immigrant named Artur Samarin used the alias “Asher Potts” to join the John Harris High School in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He impressed his teachers and had sex with a 15-year-old girl before he was discovered. He was charged with passport and Social Security fraud and served two months’ jail time.
And just this past January, a 29-year-old woman named Hyejeong Shin used a fake birth certificate to enroll in New Brunswick High School, in New Jersey. Like Hewitt, Shin attended classes and underwent guidance counseling before she was caught after four days and thrown out.
“We all want to know why somebody that old would choose to go back to high school when we’re trying to get out of it.”
On Monday, July 17, Shelby Hewitt appeared in the West Roxbury Division of the Boston Municipal Court. She pleaded not guilty to all the charges brought against her and was freed on $5,000 bail on the condition that she stay away from all Boston public schools, not practice social work, and have no contact with children beyond immediate family members.
Outside the courtroom, Hewitt’s newly appointed attorney, Timothy Flaherty, said she has a history of mental illness and is being treated for it.
“This is not something that is going to reveal itself as nefarious conduct,” said Flaherty. “This is a young lady who’s had some challenges and made some distorted decisions through unclear thinking.”
Hewitt’s next court appearance is scheduled for August 29.
John Glatt is the author of several books, including Golden Boy: A Murder Among the Manhattan Elite, which he wrote about for AIR MAIL. His next book, Tangled Vines: Power, Privilege, and the Murdaugh Family Murders, will be published on August 8 by St. Martin’s