A Broward judge, sitting only a few months in child welfare court, blasted state foster care administrators Friday for returning a 4-year-old boy to his mentally ill mother against her orders — a decision that may have resulted in his death.
Broward Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer, who was a prosecutor in Fort Lauderdale before Gov. Rick Scott appointed her to the bench last December, had been presiding over the case of Antwan Hope only briefly. His case began around 2011, when, police say, his mother tried to smother him to death with a pillow. In recent months, Broward’s privately run foster care agency, called ChildNet, had requested that Antwan be returned to his mother. In preparation for the reunification, ChildNet case workers wanted to allow Antwan’s mother, Destene Simmons, to take custody of the both for unsupervised overnight and weekend visits.
“This court gave very clear instructions — both orally on the record and by written order — that the child was not to spend the night unsupervised until a positive home study was filed with the court and approved by the Guardian-ad-Litem Program,” Scherer said at the hearing Friday morning. “Contrary to this court’s order the department placed the child with his mother on June 7, 2013 for an unsupervised overnight weekend visitation, and the child was found dead in his home on June 10, 2013.”
Neither the judge nor the guardian program received the home study until June 11, 2013,” Scherer added, “after the child was already deceased.”
“The department is in violation of this court’s order,” the judge said. ChildNet manages foster care and adoption services in Broward County under a contract with the state Department of Children & Families.
Responding to “hang-up” 911 calls, Coral Springs police found Antwan dead Monday morning, three days after his weekend visit began, the first unsupervised visit Simmons was given.
Though the Broward Medical Examiner’s Office has yet to disclose the cause of Antwan’s death, police have described it as “suspicious.”
Antwan’s mother had been well-known to police, child protection workers and mental health professionals.
Beginning around the spring of 2011, Simmons appears to have experienced the onset of severe mental illness. That spring, Simmon’s mother, Shonta Rivers, told police that Simmons had “been acting irrational for the last three months… Simmons has been waking up in the middle of the night and picking up her child and walking around the neighborhood for no apparent reason,” a report said.
Simmons also had stopped taking showers, stopped eating properly and stopped bathing her son, Rivers told police. One month later, Simmons was involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital under the Baker Act after her mother found her smothering her then-2-year-old son with a pillow, records say. After two calls to the Department of Children & Families’ abuse hotline, Antwan went to live with his father, also named Antwan Hope, and then with a maternal aunt.
By around February of this year, case workers with ChildNet asked Scherer to approve a series of unsupervised overnight visits between Antwan and his mother. Simmons, they told the judge, had successfully completed a parenting class, almost eight months of individual counseling at Henderson Mental Health, and a court-ordered psychological examination. She had gone voluntarily to a family counseling center, found a stable job and a good home. Case workers were convinced she was ready to be a good mom again.