www.bostonglobe.com /2024/05/01/magazine/the-secret-lives-of-shelby-hewitt/

Shelby Hewitt: The 32-year-old high school student in Boston

40-51 minutes 5/1/2024

The social worker said Ellie suffered from a genetic condition that prematurely aged her, making her look older than her 13 years. “I guess the kids told her she looks like someone’s mom and looks 30 years old.”

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Ellie, a petite student with straight brown hair and braces on her teeth, had only been at English High for about a week. But Delfi had contacted administrators before the girl’s first day, describing her traumatic back story: She was a victim of child trafficking, now living in Jamaica Plain with foster parents, Rebecca Bernat and John Smith. They were all deeply concerned about how she’d fit in.

School staff sprang into action. Within a few hours, they’d spoken to the teens accused of mocking Ellie, and connected the girl with the school’s culture manager, who offered strategies should it happen again. By late morning she’d outlined steps they’d taken in an email to Delfi. “My hope is that this does not continue,” the culture manager wrote.

“Sounds like a good plan and appreciate the support!” Delfi replied later. “It’s becky’s first time as a foster parent and ellie’s first time back in school, so it’s been an interesting transition.”

On any other day, that might have been the end of it — another worrisome moment in a school full of adolescent angst, another problem dealt with sensitively. But that wasn’t the end of it. Because the truth was, those taunting teens were onto something about their new classmate, something all the adults had missed for months.

Ellie Blake wasn’t 13 years old, as her social worker had said. She wasn’t a trafficked foster child. She wasn’t even Ellie Blake. Her real name was Shelby Hewitt, and the teens mocking her about looking 30 weren’t too far off. She was a 32-year-old woman with a master’s degree, a full-time job as a social worker with DCF, and a stunning array of secrets.

Among those secrets was this: Michelle Delfi wasn’t real, either. At the same time Hewitt was masquerading as a seventh-grader, she was also playing the part of Ellie’s social worker, a character she’d created. It was Hewitt herself hastily pecking out that concerned message on a cellphone, sending it just before the school bell. And although no one knew it yet, she’d been assuming a number of fake identities for most of the year in schools across Boston.

By early the next day, June 14, principal Caitlin Murphy had a creeping sense of unease. Ellie’s foster parents had both contacted the school about the bullying, and Smith came in that morning to take Ellie home, saying he was enrolling his “daughter” in a Catholic school. That seemed strange so soon into Ellie’s time at English and within days of summer vacation.

Then, when the principal looked closely at Michelle Delfi’s DCF email address, she noticed something curious: It came from the domain “@masstate.us.” That wasn’t right — the official state domain was “@state.ma.us.”

Murphy began to compose an urgent message to several staff members. “Can someone look at the documents that Ellie was registered with to be sure that we are confident that there is not something amiss here?” she wrote. “Something feels like it’s not adding up.”

Portrait of a con artist

WATCH: Globe Magazine writer Patricia Wen explores why a 32-year-old woman with a job, a car and a condo would pose as a high school student and foster child.

A CRIMINAL CASE now in Suffolk Superior Court outlines the allegations. Shelby Hewitt posed as a troubled teenager for at least nine months in 2022 and 2023, starting as 16-year-old Daniella Blake Herrera and then becoming 13-year-old Ellie Alessandra Blake.

Over that time, Hewitt slipped undetected past teachers and staff in three Boston public schools. Apparently to add credibility to her aliases, she created two fake DCF social workers — she named them Michelle Delfi and Michael Kornetsky — and sent dozens of emails and hundreds of texts from them using a special cellphone she’d purchased.

After news of Hewitt’s arrest last June, parents of real Boston students were outraged. “To find out this 32-year-old is sitting in class with my daughter and other kids, and she jumped to three different schools, it was scary,” recalls Robin Williams, whose daughter thought she was befriending a shy girl named Daniella.

Prosecutors say Hewitt also managed to enroll herself under a false identity at Walden Behavioral Care, an eating-disorder treatment center in Dedham, where she said she was a homeless teen victimized by child trafficking. Before long, Hewitt somehow ended up living in the Jamaica Plain home of Rebecca Bernat, a therapist from the center, and her partner, John Smith, in a domestic arrangement that has raised questions.

Hewitt spent most of her time at the Jeremiah E. Burke High School in Dorchester, followed by two months at Brighton High, and then just a week at English. She tried to fit in wearing the de facto uniform of today’s teenagers: hair pulled back in a ponytail, Air Jordans, sweat pants and hoodies. She turned in history homework, joined the Burke girls’ basketball team, and gossiped with classmates half her age.

But she also stood out as one of relatively few white kids in schools with predominantly Black and Hispanic populations. (In the email about Ellie being bullied for looking 30, she’d claimed kids told her “white cracks early.”)

And she cried at strange times, and complained of her foster mother’s “controlling” ways. When there were inconsistencies in her sad stories, classmates didn’t dare probe. “Me and my friends felt really bad for her,” says Janell Lamons, Williams’s daughter.

Hewitt told classmates her mother had died; sometimes, that her father had, too. One student heard that she’d emigrated from Colombia, but never heard her speak Spanish. She talked of being hungry because her foster family didn’t have enough money for food, but she was also seen driving her own car to school. Sometimes tucked in Hewitt’s fabrications was a kernel of truth.

Meanwhile, Hewitt was living her real life. She had a full-time job as a social worker for DCF, where she had a demanding caseload. In her spare time, she stayed in touch with old friends from high school and college, who recall her telling them about the two-bedroom condo she’d recently bought, paying cash.

The court case has led to a tangle of questions related to institutions charged with protecting children. How had Boston Public Schools been conned for so long? How had Walden Behavioral Health not realized that a child patient was actually in her 30s and had moved in with one of their therapists? And how could DCF not notice an employee was leading a double life in school when she was supposed to be at work protecting children vulnerable to harm?

The charges Hewitt faces relate to criminal forgery and identity fraud, and her trial is slated for the fall. At a hearing, her lawyer cited her “lifelong, well-documented history” of mental health challenges, suggesting this makes her less culpable. She has pleaded not guilty.

Beyond the questions of how Hewitt did what she’s accused of, there is the lingering question of why? It’s one thing to become an imposter for status or financial gain — actions not defensible, but at least comprehensible. But what would motivate a woman with friends, a career, and money of her own, to infiltrate a struggling city high school? Why work so hard if only to send herself down the socioeconomic ladder?

THE REAL ESTATE SECTION of the newspaper in Sharon, Massachusetts, once chronicled a parade of people on the move. In 1987, a broker published an ad that included the recent sale of a $185,000 ranch in a quiet corner of town. “Best wishes to Loreen and Malcolm Hewitt,” it read. A few years later, in March 1991, the couple celebrated the arrival of their first and only child, a baby girl they named Shelby.

Sharon is an affluent suburb about 20 miles south of Boston, the kind of place young families stretch to afford. It’s proud of its schools, community spirit, and Revolutionary War history. Outside the library stands a statue of town hero Deborah Sampson, a woman so devoted to liberty that she disguised herself as a man to fight the British.

Over the years, Hewitt’s parents sometimes struggled to make mortgage payments and notices of potential foreclosure appeared in the newspaper. Malcolm Hewitt filed for bankruptcy relief several times.

A Vermont native, he worked as a photographer in Boston, though he sometimes took shifts at fast-food joints to make ends meet. Loreen, who grew up in a large Italian-American family in and around Gloucester, worked for a time as a secretary at Putnam Investments and spent years helping with fund-raising at WGBH-TV Channel 2, persuading people to give.

A photo of a ranch style home with a garage attached to the left side of the house. There's an expanse of lawn in front.
Shelby Hewitt’s former childhood home in Sharon, photographed in 2024.Patricia Wen/Globe staff

At Sharon High School, Shelby seemed happy, at least for the first two years, say classmates I spoke with. She loved to laugh and poke fun at herself. She ran track, and yearbooks include smiling portraits of her as a freshman and sophomore.

“She was a very quirky, goofy kind of person,” recalls one friend. “The crowd we hung out with was a very outgoing bunch but we weren’t necessarily popular,” the friend says. “I think a lot of us would have self-identified as ‘weird’ but in a loving, endearing way.”

(This friend was one of many classmates, relatives, teachers, and others who spoke to me on the condition that I not name them, lest they get pulled into the ongoing criminal investigation.)

In private, however, Hewitt sometimes described conflicts with her parents. She also spent time with school counselors, though didn’t talk about it too much. “I knew of some struggles she had personally,” a friend says, “but I never would have guessed it by the way she carried herself.”

Looking back, some wonder if Hewitt felt she didn’t have the advantages of others. Not every student in the high school was well-off, but many wore expensive clothes and talked of pricey family vacations. “She was not like the other kids in Sharon,” says a high school staff member. “She had more edge and more world weariness than the others.”

Shelby’s father, Malcolm, who has since moved to Canton, would say very little when I first tried to speak with him in March. “She’s my daughter, I stand by her,” he said. “She’s not a criminal.”

Weeks later, he called me back. He’d been thinking about it, and had more to say. He blames himself in part for failing to provide more for Shelby growing up. He said he fell short as a breadwinner and also had trouble with alcohol. His wife, Loreen, was loving and attentive to Shelby, and tried her best. But, he added, “I could have been a better father.” He declined to comment further.

By the second half of high school, Hewitt was having a harder time. She fell behind in her work, the school staffer recalls, and sometimes became so emotional that adults needed to intervene. No portrait of her appears in yearbooks from her junior and senior years. She enrolled in a school program designed for students who had adjustment or mental health problems.

Around 8:45 one night in March 2008, when Hewitt was a junior, she dialed 911, then quickly hung up. The dispatcher called back. “Shelby sounded like she was crying, but told the dispatcher that nobody else was there and she was fine,” reads a partly redacted police report. Officers visited her home and found her “visibly upset,” yet hesitant to say what was wrong. She did say her father was working until 9 p.m. and her mother until 10:30, and “she had no friends or relatives to call and nowhere to go.”

Eventually, Hewitt explained she’d been receiving some emotional support at school, and police concluded there was no “emergency situation” at home. They spoke to her parents. The police report indicated that the state child protection agency would be notified, but didn’t say why.

A school headshot of a young woman with long, straight dark hair.
Shelby Hewitt's high school photo from 2007, her sophomore year.

As Hewitt approached graduation, she spoke of two goals: to build a career helping troubled children and to leave Sharon. With her acceptance to Boston’s Wheelock College — known for programs in school counseling and social work — she had a chance to do both. “She was so happy,” the Sharon High staffer recalls.

Hewitt did the usual college things at Wheelock — made new friends, went to parties, dyed her hair different colors. Friends don’t recall hearing about serious romances, but there were hints of relationships that grew intense quickly, only to fade away. She also told friends she was dealing with an eating disorder. Some of them had their own psychological struggles, and they appreciated how openly she talked about her mental health journey.

She made the Wheelock dean’s list in 2013, the year she earned her bachelor’s in human development and counseling psychology. In 2016, she earned her master’s in school counseling from the University of Massachusetts Boston.

So when DCF hired her as a social worker out of graduate school, it seemed almost predestined — the culmination of a mission she’d been pursuing for years. “She genuinely wanted to help people,” says the Sharon High staffer. “She wanted to help kids.”

AT DCF, HEWITT WORKED as a social worker associate, an entry-level position that pays about $50,000 a year. By union contract, she was expected to handle up to 15 cases at a time, including ones in which children were believed to be at serious risk due to parents with substance abuse or domestic violence issues.

It’s brutal, emotional work. Roughly one-third of all DCF workers quit within three years of being hired, a union official told me. Hewitt worked from 2016 to 2018, though less than full time, then seemed to leave DCF employment for the next several years. She wouldn’t return to DCF until December 2021.

The details of Hewitt’s work life during the intervening years are spotty.

The gaps may have been related in part to her family. Her father had health issues, including serious heart problems. Her mother had a stroke and was moved into a nursing home; Hewitt spoke to friends of visiting her while she was sick. In May 2018, when Hewitt was 27, her mother died of renal failure at age 65. Her obituary cited her determination, as well as “her wonderful introspection, incredible insight, and fierce love for others.”

It’s also possible Hewitt left DCF because she didn’t need the money. Within a few months of her mother’s death, her maternal grandfather also passed away. He left his adult children an inheritance with Loreen’s share going to Shelby, friends say. They recall her describing it as sizable — in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, one heard, maybe even over a million.

Meanwhile, Hewitt was experiencing other mental-health struggles. At some point around 2020 — amid COVID-19 and relentless social distancing — she apparently spent some time at a residential treatment center for eating disorders, run by Walden Behavioral Care. Her extended family was generally aware she was getting help, but also heard upbeat news about her time in college and on the job, one relative tells me. “We thought everything was on the right track.”

For all the questions about this period, two dates are clear, spelled out in court documents, and reveal a pivotal point in Hewitt’s life.

A photo of a young woman with her long dark hair draped over her right shoulder in a braid. She's wearing a gray sweatshirt that says "Nantucket" and a baseball cap. There are people on either side of her cropped out of the photo.
Shelby Hewitt in a photo taken circa 2022.

On December 5, 2021, when she was 30, she began working again at DCF, after her request to return was granted. And, on December 6, she began to lay the digital groundwork for her secret lives.

Less than 24 hours after returning to DCF, Hewitt logged onto GoDaddy.com, typing in her real name and the address of her father’s Canton apartment, which she often used in official paperwork. Then she bought the domain @masstate.us — one that looked similar to the domain where official DCF email accounts were then hosted.

That same day, Hewitt created an email account that looked like it came from a DCF social worker she named Michael Kornetsky. Several months later, she added one for Michelle Delfi.

Hewitt would come to use those email accounts frequently and strategically. “Posing behind the keyboard as one of these DCF workers,” prosecutor Ashley Polin later alleged in court, “the defendant had herself admitted as a child patient at the Walden Behavioral treatment center and enrolled herself in the Boston Public Schools.”

ONCE AN IMPOSTER IS DISCOVERED, piecing together their past can be challenging. Every fact you think you know can seem built on quicksand. Some of Hewitt’s friends say they are no longer sure when she was telling the truth and when she wasn’t.

I began to feel similar uncertainties while reporting this story. For example, a court record points to some people who seem linked to Hewitt, including a local professor and a day-care provider. Yet when I reached them, both said — in one case vehemently — they absolutely didn’t know her. I had to wonder: Did they forget, or just want to stay out of the story? Or did Hewitt use their names as the early work of a con artist?

Sometimes I felt like I was seeing connections where maybe there weren’t any. Around the time Hewitt was choosing the name Michelle Delfi, state authorities put out a report that someone named Michelle Delfi-Feliciano — who vanished from Puerto Rico as a child three decades ago — could now be living in Massachusetts. Did Hewitt see that news?

How did she come up with her high school names? “Ellie Blake” was a character in the 2018 Disney Channel adaptation of Freaky Friday, a teen who switches bodies with her mother and goes to high school with the mind of an adult. That couldn’t possibly mean anything, could it?

An illustration of someone's hands holding photos over a file cabinet drawer filled with file folders. The two pictures are Shelby Hewitt's mugshot and a photo of her wearing a baseball cap.
owen freeman for the boston globe

To try and understand the motivations of imposters, I sought out a number of psychologists. Each emphasized that they couldn’t assess Hewitt, based on their limited information, but could offer impressions. They think it unlikely her behavior points to multiple personality disorder (also known as dissociative identity disorder). Someone with that disorder wouldn’t have such control of multiple identities, all working toward a common goal.

Steven Huprich, a longtime clinical psychologist, is past president of the International Society for the Study of Personality Disorders. He says Hewitt’s case is very complex and unusual, and believes she may have experienced significant trauma in her past. “Trauma around being loved and cared for,” he says. “It may be that she feels like a damaged child who did not have many of her psychological needs met.”

Another expert, Maria Konnikova, has a doctorate in psychology from Columbia University and is author of a 2016 book about con artists and their marks, The Confidence Game: Why We Fall For It . . . Every Time.

We talked about how we’re all used to hearing stories of imposters. Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter posed as Clark Rockefeller on Boston’s Beacon Hill and elsewhere. Anna Sorokin pretended to be wealthy heiress Anna Delvey. But why, I wondered, would a young professional like Hewitt impersonate a struggling foster child?

Konnikova says it’s a myth that all imposters want to gain money or status. “They’re motivated by control and power,” she says. “They are motivated by the rush of controlling people.”

Take the teenager found wandering in downtown Dublin in 2013, Konnikova says. The girl couldn’t remember her name, but suggested she was a traumatized victim of sex trafficking. That set off a desperate search by authorities to help her, until they discovered it was all a ruse. Samantha Azzopardi, an Australian woman then 25 years old, had made it all up, eliciting strangers’ compassion to accrue emotional power.

It turns out using the persona of a child in desperate circumstances can be an effective way to win sympathy, because few people are willing to doubt them. As the French serial imposter Frédéric Bourdin, who often posed as a traumatized boy, once told a reporter: “Nobody expects a seemingly vulnerable child to be lying.”

Konnikova says many imposters start with smaller fabrications, and when those work easily, become emboldened. People like this are far more common than many of us realize, she adds. They tend to spin emotional, heart-rending narratives about their lives that captivate people’s instinct to help someone in need.

“People want to be good,” Konnikova says. And that makes them vulnerable.

WHEN SHELBY HEWITT returned to Walden Behavioral Care in Dedham, in early 2022, it was under the identity of a minor child, according to prosecutors. And it was with the help of at least one of the DCF social workers she created.

Walden is part of a national network of providers, Monte Nido & Affiliates, owned by the private equity firm Revelstoke Capital Partners. Two years earlier, Walden had opened its state-of-the art Dedham center, with 82 beds, describing it as the nation’s “largest freestanding 24-hour inpatient and residential care facility for people with eating disorders.”

To get admitted, prospective patients generally go through an initial 15-minute telephone intake, followed by a 60 to 90 minute clinician meeting by phone or on Zoom, among other steps, according to the center’s website. A Walden spokesperson won’t say what name Hewitt used at the center, how old she said she was, or how she paid — whether by insurance or with cash — citing patient confidentiality.

DEDHAM, MA - 10/13/2020: 14WALDEN... Words are written throughout the center on walls for encouragement as a tour group passes. Walden Behavioral Care is opening the nation's largest in-patient treatment center for eating disorders in Dedham. The new facility will have 82 beds, more than 3 times the size of the unit they have now in Waltham. Currently, Walden is housed in a unit of Children's Hospital in Waltham. Walden has been looking for larger space to accommodate the demand for its services for about 10 years.
A common space at Walden Behavioral Care in Dedham, where Hewitt posed as a teen.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File

A former patient at Walden tells me Hewitt was there at least twice, most recently in 2022 when she knew her by the name Ellie, though she sometimes used Daniella. “I thought she was a troubled kid who had a lot of mental health issues,” she says. “She said she was a victim of child trafficking” and was homeless. No one knew her age, she says, because Hewitt said she was so traumatized she didn’t know it herself.

In private, Hewitt told this patient her real name was Shelby, but that she needed to use fake ones “to keep her safe from the people who did the trafficking.” That made sense to her confidant. “All in our group at Walden worried about her, even as we had our own issues,” the former patient says. “Hers were more extreme.”

One person who took notice of Hewitt was an experienced therapist at the Dedham center, responsible for overseeing residential programs: Rebecca Bernat.

Then in her mid-40s, Bernat had a master’s in social work from Simmons University, and consulted with McLean Hospital. In addition to her position at Walden, she had a private practice in Brookline. “Becky has devoted her life to serving clients and families with mental and behavioral health concerns,” reads an archived Walden webpage of her leadership biography, which also cites her skill and empathy. It said she also loved home improvement projects, traveling, and bringing her niece and nephew on adventures.

At Walden, Bernat appeared moved by the plight of the homeless foster child, who experienced panic attacks that shook her whole body, the former patient says. Hewitt seemed to welcome the attention she received from adults, perhaps Bernat most of all. “She became obsessed with her — a female figure to help her,” the former patient says. “She needed someone to take care of her. Like mommy issues.”

This patient last remembers seeing Hewitt at Walden in April 2022. Sometime that summer, prosecutors say, Hewitt visited a Staples store and forged official-looking documents that supported her identity as a foster child. At some point, Hewitt got braces on her teeth.

Eventually, Bernat allowed Hewitt to move into the condo she shared with her partner John Smith. That decision, even if well meaning, would typically be considered professionally inappropriate, whether Bernat was Hewitt’s therapist or just running the residential program.

A composite image showing the headshots of a man and a woman side by side.
Rebecca Bernat and John Smith acted like Shelby Hewitt’s foster parents, talking about her with Boston school officials.

In schools, Bernat and Smith behaved as parental figures with legal authority, including attending special-education team meetings, according to prosecutor records. Though it’s unclear how they described themselves, Hewitt called them foster parents. The couple didn’t go through the state’s required process for foster parents, says a DCF spokesperson.

For much of the school year ahead, Bernat, Smith, and Hewitt lived in the two-bedroom, 1,300-square-foot condo. A neighbor recalls seeing Hewitt outside a few times, dressed in baggy sweat shirts that made her look twentysomething. She figured Hewitt was there to visit relatives. “She walked quickly,” the neighbor recalls. “Like she didn’t want to be seen.”

The former patient says she thought often about Hewitt, even months after she left Walden, worried about what could happen to her. Would she elude her traffickers? But then she’d take comfort knowing she had Bernat by her side. Becky is Shelby’s person, she thought.

JEREMIAH E. BURKE HIGH SCHOOL is an imposing Art Deco building in Dorchester. Lockers line the long central hallway, and a series of inspirational banners hang overhead: Respect. Responsibility. Perseverance. Hewitt arrived there in September 2022, wearing a backpack and a new identity, 16-year-old freshman Daniella Blake Herrera.

Any student who joins a new school remembers the name of their first friend, and for Daniella that person might have been Janell Lamons.

Janell was a 15-year-old girl from Dorchester with empathy for new students who seemed soft-spoken like her. “I approached her and said, ‘Hi, my name is Janell. Is this your first year at Burke?’” Janell recalls. It was, Daniella responded. “She said she’s 16 years old and says she lives in foster care.”

Janell introduced the new girl to her friends. In the days ahead, they heard more of her story. Daniella said her mom and dad had both died, but then, at a different time, that her father had drug issues and was in prison. Which one was it? The friends didn’t press. They always felt Daniella’s life seemed so much harder than theirs. “She said her foster mother didn’t have money and sometimes ran out of food,” Janell says.

A photo of a young woman sitting and resting the right side of her face on her right hand. Her mother stands behind her with her left hand placed on the girl's left shoulder.
Janell Lamons, pictured with her mother, knew Shelby Hewitt as Daniella.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/File

The two had English, math, and history together and saw each other often. Neither of them liked eating in the cafeteria, so they’d grab pizza or chicken tenders from the lunch line, then walk to a nearby library. They didn’t talk about music, or TV, or boys, Janell recalls. “She talked about her passion to help kids in foster care.”

Hewitt apparently hadn’t intended to end up at the Burke. She’d tried to enroll at Boston Day and Evening Academy, a charter school for students who are often older, between ages 16 and 22. But she was turned away, court records say.

She ended up assigned to the Burke as part of an enrollment process that begins with a visit to one of four Welcome Centers in the city, which can help some students start in school right away. Under federal law, at-risk children — those who say they are in foster care, homeless, or migrants, or in certain other categories — must be immediately enrolled, even if they don’t present all documents at once.

The legislation is meant to ensure red tape doesn’t get in the way of education; individual schools can gather and review documentation later. “We’re the Welcome Center,” says William Escoto, director of the center in Dorchester. “We want people to feel welcome. We want to be as caring as possible.”

It’s a well-meaning system, but it’s also open to exploitation if schools don’t collect and carefully review eligibility paperwork. This was the process by which Hewitt would enter the school system.

A school official says Rebecca Bernat visited the Dorchester Welcome Center to enroll Daniella Herrera. She ultimately submitted some documents, including proof of residency and immunization records. At least one was later found to be forged, allegedly by Hewitt, and a birth certificate was apparently not submitted at all.

At the Burke, few asked questions when she drove to school. “She was 16 and it was so strange she had a car,” says Zahkia Warren, now 18, who was on the basketball team with Daniella. Janell thought it unusual that she carried two phones.

Hewitt arrived at Jeremiah E. Burke High School in September 2022 as 16-year-old freshman Daniella Blake Herrera.
Hewitt arrived at Jeremiah E. Burke High School in September 2022 as 16-year-old freshman Daniella Blake Herrera.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/File

Although Daniella did not appear to stand out in class, she drew attention of staff when she wept in the hallways. “It looked like she was crying almost every day,” Janell recalls. “She didn’t want to say why she was crying.”

Occasionally, she also exhibited flashes of a temper. One day, she and classmates overheard a female administrator reprimand a teacher for letting a student use a cellphone. As the administrator left, Daniella yelled out, “Bitch!”

Though Daniella didn’t make much of a mark academically at the Burke, she stood out on the basketball team. Players were allowed to choose their own jersey numbers, and she selected 32 (which was incidentally the age Hewitt would turn after the end of the season). On a squad of relative newcomers, she proved a solid passer and shooter. The players saw that the man she called her foster father, John Smith, was a regular presence at their games.

The team finished the season with a lopsided losing record, but grew tight through the experience. On team picture day, however, Daniella refused to join them, instead staying outside the frame. She said her foster parents wouldn’t want her to be photographed.

Students now wonder what signs they missed. One player, Nyla Bass, 16, says looking back, she realizes the girl she knew as Daniella was more physically developed than others. “I’m not surprised she’s a grown woman,” she says.

Warren also noticed that after practice, Daniella rarely stayed long to hang out with teammates, slipping away from the group. “She was quiet and quick,” she says. It was as if she had places she needed to go.

A photo of an interior school hall.
Burke High School in November 2022, the same time Hewitt was posing as a student there. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/File

EVEN AS HEWITT was attending classes at the Burke as Daniella, she was still living her life as the real Shelby.

Maria Konnikova, the expert on con artists, tells me this is unusual for imposters. Few people can switch between real and fake identities — it gets too difficult. “Most people don’t live both lives,” she says. “When you’re building an alter ego, you usually go all in.”

Hewitt seemed to juggle multiple identities with ease. Around the same time she started school in September 2022, Hewitt signed paperwork to purchase a two-bedroom condo in Central Massachusetts. It cost about $377,000 — the previous owner had been foreclosed upon. Records show she didn’t take out a mortgage, apparently paying the whole amount in cash.

When I drove out to Hewitt’s condo for the first time in early March, her car wasn’t in the parking lot and the lights of her unit were off. A neighbor said she was rarely there, maybe once every six weeks or so.

I left a letter at Hewitt’s front door, requesting an interview. One thing I wanted to ask was how she managed to be a student at the Burke while she had a job at DCF. According to a document prosecutors filed in court, “While engaging in this charade of being a child in DCF custody and a full-time student with significant special needs the defendant continued to work as a social worker employed by DCF and collect her state salary between September 2022 and February 2023.” In 2022, she earned $51,267 — including $1,254 in overtime pay.

Had Hewitt been paid for DCF work she didn’t perform? Was she doing her job protecting at-risk children — the kind of children she was pretending to be?

A DCF spokeswoman, Andrea Grossman, would not say if the agency has verified that Hewitt conducted her mandatory monthly visits with families, or reviewed the quality of her casework, citing the ongoing investigation. She also declined to say if Hewitt’s supervisor held weekly meetings with her, as required by agency policy, or if families Hewitt worked with have been informed of the allegations against her. “I can’t give that specific information,” Grossman said.

Sometimes an extreme case can expose a flaw in a system. A former DCF social worker I spoke with, Chelsie Veilleux, suggested she wouldn’t be surprised if Hewitt managed to skirt through by doing the bare minimum. Oversight in the agency can be loose, she says, especially with all the time spent traveling to homes of families.

“They could definitely get away with it,” says Veilleux, who was based from 2015 to 2017 in the Lowell office, where Hewitt also apparently worked for a time. Families under DCF supervision also “don’t want to see you, so they are not going to complain,” she says.

During the time Hewitt was working and attending high school, she also stayed in touch with friends from Sharon and college. They chatted about cat adoptions, vaping, roommate issues, and vacations.

In the winter of 2023, Hewitt and friends made plans to meet up at a restaurant in Newton. “What’s the name of the place,” Hewitt texted on the way over. Her friend sent the name. “Cool,” she replied. “See you then.”

At one point over an otherwise pleasant dinner, Hewitt “was worked up and angry and swearing” about her job, the friend recalls. She said she was working as a social worker in Boston Public Schools, and fighting with a principal to get services for a vulnerable foster child.

The friend was surprised by how upset she was. She also noticed for the first time that Hewitt had braces on her teeth.

THE STUDENT KNOWN AS DANIELLA HERRERA transferred from Burke to Brighton High in April 2023. The move gave her access to the ACES program, designed to provide extra help to older special education students at risk of dropping out.

Those early days at a new school seemed full of hope. “Hi there,” Hewitt wrote to the ACES director, posing again as Delfi. “Really appreciate you guys taking her this late in the year!”

But in emails and texts to come from her fabricated social workers, there emerges a picture of a student who is increasingly fragile, especially physically. Delfi’s requests also became more insistent. Daniella could use an easier academic load, she wrote, suggesting the girl be allowed to drop US history. “Maybe she could do art or gym instead?”

Brighton’s ACES director, Sara Bouvier, wanted to help. School staff were holding daily meetings to discuss Daniella’s situation, she explained. She assured Delfi that “we are working hard behind the scenes to make sure she is getting what she needs here at BHS academically and emotionally.”

In a program for the school’s most vulnerable special education students, an imposter was taking up an outsized amount of time and attention.

Soon, Daniella was getting worse. “She is currently on a med that is making her like a zombie and sleeping through the day,” reads an email from Michael Kornetsky, the other DCF social worker Hewitt created.

A copy of an email sent on April 14, 2023. The message says: 
I also forgot to include in my last email that when this child doesn't like the environment she is in because it is too hard (in her mind) she acts out in ways she never normally would with the intention of trying to get kicked out, because that has worked in the past. 

Also, I know in her last school they had considered the idea of having her join their "aba academy" with the higher functioning kids that are low, for reading and writing.
An email from Hewitt, this time posing as a state social worker Michelle Delfi, to a Brighton High official.

By May 4, Brighton High staff were alarmed. Someone overheard Daniella mention she had diabetes and “a blood clot that could cause her to have a stroke.” Bouvier alerted Delfi that a consent form for Daniella’s medical records was coming home, and suggested a Zoom meeting.

Hewitt obviously couldn’t impersonate Delfi on Zoom. “I don’t think foster family really wants the school having access to her medical records perse,” she replied as Delfi. “I think mom feels it’s a little intrusive.”

Bouvier backed away from the request, writing “No need to meet over Zoom.”

Before long, it appeared Hewitt wasn’t getting what she needed, or wanted, from Brighton High. The person teachers and students knew as 16-year-old Daniella had disappeared from school by mid-June, though she never formally withdrew. By then, 13-year-old Ellie Blake was already walking the halls of English High.

ON JUNE 14, 2023, within about a week of the new student’s arrival, English High principal Caitlin Murphy had just discovered Delfi’s suspicious-looking email account, and Ellie’s foster parents were urgently contacting the school about the bullying. Too many things weren’t adding up.

At some point, staff saw a letter on DCF letterhead, dated December 18, 2022, and signed by Delfi, granting Bernat the right to make medical decisions on Ellie’s behalf. But there was a typo in the logo: “Department of Children rind Families.”

The school placed a call to DCF, asking to speak to Delfi. The answer: Nobody by that name works here.

School officials called the police.

Murphy began to tap the student enrollment office, asking everyone to closely review Ellie’s paperwork. “I assumed we had some sort of information from DCF regarding the arrangement with the foster parents — we’ve had no reason to doubt anyone calling before,” the principal wrote, “but in retrospect we should have asked for some formal paperwork.”

A school official acknowledged they couldn’t find a birth certificate.

Hewitt was soon connected to the fake students, and police tracked her down to question her. According to records, she initially told them “Michelle” created fake documents to persuade Bernat to take her into her home. But later, Hewitt called police back, admitting it was all her doing. She described going to Staples the previous summer and creating the documents. She said they could find them in her closet in Jamaica Plain, and that Bernat and Smith might also have copies.

Hewitt said it was all her idea. She said she just “wanted a family.”

Police descended on the condo. During two searches, they pulled numerous objects from Hewitt’s bedroom, including the forged DCF documents in a purple Five Star folder and a white iPhone with stickers.

A neighbor, drawn by all the police cars, could see Bernat near her condo. She was weeping.

An illustration showing an overhead view of a person standing in front of a building with a police car in front of it. The person is holding their face in their hands and crying.
owen freeman for the boston globe

IN THE MONTHS AHEAD, Bernat would face professional repercussions. She is no longer employed at Walden, a company representative told me. And the Massachusetts Board of Registration of Social Workers has “decided to pursue disciplinary action” related to complaints against her license as an independent clinical social worker, a board spokesperson said. The spokesperson would not disclose the allegations, but all were filed since Hewitt’s criminal case began. The board has since referred the matter to its office of prosecutions that handles disciplinary action. (Bernat’s lawyer says her client fully cooperated when the board contacted her six months ago, but has not heard from it since.)

As Boston Public Schools officials see it, blame for the ordeal belongs to Bernat, Smith, and Hewitt together. “We are deeply troubled that several adults would breach the trust of our school communities by posing as a student and the student’s foster parents,” Superintendent Mary Skipper said in a statement.

She’s introducing a new policy requiring that all school registrations involving foster children be validated through DCF office phones. But she doesn’t see this case as an example of systemic failure. “This fraud is less about our district’s protocols and more about the criminal intent of the adults involved,” she said.

Although Bernat and Smith have not been charged with any crimes, they’ve both hired criminal defense lawyers. Connie Tran, who represents Bernat, and David Grimaldi, who represents Smith, turned down my interview requests and declined to answer a list of questions, including whether the couple received compensation from Hewitt for taking her in, or ever harbored suspicions about her as she moved schools.

The attorneys emailed me a joint statement, saying their clients have told investigators and prosecutors everything they know and expect to continue to cooperate with law enforcement.

“The criminal defendant deceived and victimized John Smith and Rebecca Bernat,” the lawyers wrote. “John and Rebecca are among numerous people who genuinely believed a desperate young person was in need.”

West Roxbury, MA, 7/17/23 - Shelby Hewitt, 32, of Canton, was arraigned in West Roxbury Municipal Court on several charges including four counts of document forgery, two counts of uttering a false writing, and one count of identity fraud. (Alysa Guffey)
Shelby Hewitt in West Roxbury Municipal Court in July 2023 for arraignment.Alysa Guffey

IN THE SPECTATOR ROWS in West Roxbury Municipal Court one day last June, Janell Lamons and her mother watched as Hewitt, accompanied by her lawyer, entered the courtroom to hear the charges against her.

The pair sat two rows behind Hewitt. At one point Janell looked right at her, hoping she’d look back. Hewitt did, but her expression stayed flat. If Janell could have asked her a question it would have been, “Why did you do this?” she told me later. “I feel betrayed and confused.”

At times during the hearing, Hewitt’s body seemed to be shaking, and she occasionally wept. Her lawyer, Tim Flaherty, raised the issue of her mental state and how it affects her accountability. Flaherty, who is privately retained by Hewitt, has said in court she’s been in treatment.

The idea of a mental health defense angers Janell’s mother, Robin. Like many parents and students, she’s been upset at school officials for their lack of oversight in admitting Hewitt. And now here Hewitt was trying to evade personal responsibility. “As soon as they get caught, they say: I got a mental illness,” Williams told me.

Many who knew Hewitt are trying to understand how they feel about her now. When the news of her arrest first broke, the former Walden patient says she was so upset, she couldn’t do anything for a day. “I’ve been through so much. I had an eating disorder and my own trauma,” she says. “I trusted her with my personal stories. And now to know those stories were not protected and not safe.” Over time the anger dissipated, she says. Now, “It’s more disappointment.”

She’s heard from people who said it seems hard to fathom Bernat and Smith didn’t have suspicions about Hewitt, but she believes all they could see was a child desperately in need. “Poor Becky,” she says. “She just wanted to help Shelby, and Shelby took advantage of the situation.”

Hewitt’s case was moved up to Suffolk Superior Court in December. Both sides have indicated plea bargain discussions will begin soon. If there is no agreement, a trial is slated for September.

A mugshot of a woman with long dark hair.
Shelby Hewitt's 2023 booking photo.From Boston Police Department

During her Superior Court arraignment, Hewitt was asked to enter a plea. She murmured “not guilty,” barely above a whisper, and has not spoken publicly since. In one court appearance earlier this year, in which she was allowed to appear by Zoom, she was visibly distraught, her face weaving in and out of the screen.

In early April, I made a second visit to Hewitt’s condo in Central Massachusetts. She had never contacted me, and her lawyer hadn’t returned my calls and emails. When I got no answer at her door, I left a second letter asking to speak to her. Could she let me know she got it?

I was back at home around 7 p.m. when my cellphone rang. It was from a blocked number. I answered.

“I got your letter,” said a voice.

“Is this Shelby Hewitt?” I asked.


We exchanged pleasantries, and she seemed poised and self-assured. Soon I asked her the question on everyone’s minds: Why?

“There’s a reason,” she said, but her lawyer was barring her from answering any questions while the case is pending. She said the truth “will come out in time.”

I asked Hewitt if there was anything she’d like to say to those she’s hurt along the way. She seemed to hesitate, just for a moment, then again referred to her lawyer’s prohibitions.

At one point, I asked if she thinks people will eventually understand her actions, even sympathize. “I can’t speak for what people will understand and not understand,” she said.

Throughout the conversation, Hewitt came across as confident and in control. She seemed so unlike the fragile teen student who had been described to me, or the woman who spoke with a meek voice in court. She sounded like a completely different person.

Patricia Wen can be reached at patricia.wen@globe.com. Follow her @GlobePatty.