CROWN POINT | Christian Choate and his father were enjoying building a positive relationship together, a local therapist reported in 2005.
"The writer feels it is in the client's best interest to be placed with his biological father," the mental health report obtained by The Times states -- suggesting Riley Choate should receive custody.
However, the relationship was doomed after Choate gained custody of Christian and his sister, Christina, six months later, family members said. Children in the Choate home allege Riley Choate locked Christian in a cage and beat him on a regular basis until his death in 2009.
Police unearthed the boy's body May 1 from a shallow grave underneath a layer of concrete and lime in a mobile home park in Gary's Black Oak neighborhood.
Christian's father and stepmother, Kimberly Kubina, were arrested and charged with the boy's murder as well as several other offenses related to his death.
Lengthy police and Indiana Department of Family Services interviews conducted with children who lived in the home depict an abusive, dangerous household.
But some officials, family members and agency documents dating back more than six years ago offered a starkly different view of the dynamics in the Choate family.
Evaluations conducted in February 2005 by former Southlake Center for Mental Health therapist Angie Cleveland reported that Riley Choate and Kimberly Kubina were supportive and patient in working with the troubled Christian.
According to the 2005 report, Choate and Kubina were providing "a safe, well-structured environment" for Christian -- despite the mental problems the boy had been coping with.
"Dad and stepmom are able to control situations, while being patient and kind," Cleveland noted.
Riley Choate's sister, Sandi Lester, recently told The Times that Choate was supportive of all children in the household -- including children that weren't his.
Lester, 46, said she had her first child when Riley Choate was young. He had helped with the baby when he was still a child, she said.
"He's always been around kids, and he's always loved kids," she said.
Choate's decision to fight for custody of Christian and his sister stemmed from concerns about abuse allegations against their mother, Aimee Eriks-Estrada, Lester said.
"He wanted them to be safe," she said.
As the custody battle brewed, mental health officials provided insight into the family's relationships. Cleveland's evaluation asked the court to consider her report when making a custody decision.
"The family seems to have a bond that is very positive," Cleveland wrote.
Despite the DCS' substantiated claims of abuse in 2004 of children in that household, Choate was granted custody of Christian and his sister in August 2005.
"He just kept saying, 'I can't believe it. I got custody,'" Lester said. "He was so excited."
The documented 2004 abuse case came from a complaint filed with DCS in August 2004. Choate admitted to DCS investigators he sometimes would use a belt to discipline Kubina's nieces.
Being hit with a belt was how Choate was disciplined as a child, Lester said.
"He just said he didn't know it was wrong to whip a child with a belt," she said.
DCS referred Choate to parenting classes and removed Kubina's nieces from the home, agency documents show.
After DCS intervened, Choate didn't hit either of Kubina's nieces again after they returned to the home, one of the girls told The Times in a previous interview.
When news of the allegations against Choate in connection with Christian's death began to surface, Choate's family was stunned, Lester said. When Choate was arrested in connection with Christian's death, his three siblings had mixed reactions, she said.
But Lester has stuck by her brother by attending court hearings and supporting him as much as she can.
"He's not the person that he's been made out to be," she said. "He's not a monster."
Cleveland resigned from working with the Choate family in September 2005. She could not be reached for comment.