Cape Coral toddler dies under suspicious circumstances

Little Fernando Barahona was hospitalized last month after sustaining fractures to the back and side of his skull. His mother and her boyfriend said Fernando was knocked over by a dog.

Doctors who examined the toddler on May 17 told state child welfare investigators the account of mother Elvia Enid Fernandez and her “paramour” was not consistent with the injuries, which they suspected were the result of physical abuse.

Despite that, investigators gave Fernando back to his mom.

Two weeks later, 1-year-old Fernando was dead.

Police from the Southwest Florida town of Cape Coral and the state Department of Children & Families are investigating Fernando’s June 3 death, and both agencies refused this week to discuss the case with the Miami Herald.

In response to a public records request, the DCF on Tuesday provided a copy of a short report on the case to the Herald.

Fernando’s death comes at a difficult time for child protection administrators: in Broward County, a child welfare judge blasted the agency last Friday for violating a court order after a 4-year-old boy, Antwan Hope, died during an unsupervised weekend visit with his mother, Destene Simmons, who had tried to smother him to death two years earlier.

The judge, Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer, said she had ordered DCF’s privately managed foster care provider, ChildNet, to give her a copy of a positive home study before she would agree to unsupervised overnight visits. She received a copy of the report only after Antwan died, she said at a hearing Friday.

And in Miami-Dade, Catalina Marista Bruno was arrested on May 17 – the same day Fernando was hospitalized with two cracks in his skull – after she left her infant, Bryan Osceola, to bake to death in a car a day earlier. Months before, the agency investigated a report that Bruno had passed out drunk with the baby splayed across the front seat, and her car still in drive.

The agency also has been in a bitter dispute for several weeks with the 20 private agencies that oversee foster care and adoption services throughout the state under contract with DCF. The agencies balked at signing new contracts that were intended to give DCF Secretary David Wilkins significantly greater control over the group’s management, including veto power over high-ranking executives.

The agencies have accused Wilkins of “bullying” them.

In recent days, two of the private foster care providers renewed their contracts with DCF, but the new agreements do not contain a key provision Wilkins was seeking that would give him the final word over the agencies' hiring and firing of top executives. A DCF spokeswoman said that clause, and others, will be ironed out in forthcoming negotiations.

Both Elvia Fernandez and her boyfriend have histories of abuse or neglect reports to DCF, though all records of those investigations were removed from the report.

The investigation into Fernando’s skull fractures remained open. Doctors were convinced that someone had inflicted the injury.

DCF’s report suggests Fernandez was warned to keep the boy away from her “paramour.”

On June 3, Fernando was found “unresponsive” in his crib at 2:45 a.m., and pronounced dead less than an hour later. The boy “was not observed with any visible marks, injuries, bruises open wounds or noted fractures and the cause of death is currently unknown,” the incident report said.

Fernandez’s boyfriend, the report said, “was not supposed to be in the home when the incident occurred.”

While Fernandez and her boyfriend gave “consistent” statements to police, the report said, their accounts were in conflict when they were interviewed by a DCF child abuse investigator.

Fernando was reported to be “fussy” at around 1 a.m., and Fernandez’s boyfriend told DCF he took the toddler into the living room where he “tried to console him.” Later, the boyfriend said, he took Fernando outside and “walked around with the child, patting his back in an effort to calm him.”

The boy’s mother told an investigator she was watching Fernando and her boyfriend “the entire time” Fernando was being fussy – a claim DCF called “unlikely.”

Later that night, Fernandez said checked for a pulse on her little boy. “She noticed that the child was cold and thought it might be from the fan. She then called the child’s name three times, however, he didn’t respond,” the incident report said.

The mother, the report said, “was unable to offer an explanation as to…why she just left the child even though he never responded. When she checked on [the boy] the second time, [she] noticed that he was unresponsive and called 911.”

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