CHILD WELFARE

Tot’s punishment for spilled bathwater: a fatal beating

 

cmarbin@MiamiHerald.com

Claude Alexis savagely whipped a 2-year-old boy to death with a belt because the toddler spilled bathwater “all over” the floor.

That’s the story 32-year-old Alexis told North Miami Beach Police detectives Monday when he reportedly confessed to killing Ezra Raphael, his girlfriend’s son. Alexis had been left alone with the boy late on the night of June 21, the couple told police, so that 22-year-old Cierrah Raphael, a prostitute, could turn tricks.

On Wednesday, a Miami-Dade judge ordered Alexis to remain at the Miami-Dade County Jail without bond until he is tried on charges of first-degree murder and aggravated child abuse. Raphael remained in jail as well, unable to post a $7,500 bond while she faces child neglect charges.

In court Wednesday morning, Alexis — wearing a padded jumpsuit for inmates on suicide watch — insisted he never meant to harm the toddler.

“I loved that boy,” he told the judge.

Ezra, who was described by a family friend as well-mannered and precocious, became the fourth Florida child to die in the past six weeks following some contact with the state’s troubled child protection system.

Critics of the Department of Children & Families suggest the recent “cluster” of child deaths suggests the agency is in deep trouble, despite the recent claims of Secretary David Wilkins that a host of changes made following a 2011 child death scandal have made Florida children safer.

Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Jeri Beth Cohen, who chairs the county’s foster care oversight board, called the Community-Based Care Alliance, said she could not recall any time in recent history in which so many young children had been killed after the state had been given meaningful opportunities to save them. Two of the four recent deaths involved small children from Miami-Dade.

“We have a very severe systemic problem,” Cohen said. “The system is not working, and it’s scary.”

“Every single one of these deaths could have been avoided,” said Cohen who was a veteran child welfare judge before transferring to Miami’s drug court, where she often still deals with parents whose addictions undermine their parenting. “You can’t explain away this many child deaths in this short a period of time where the state’s child protective investigation system is implicated. It’s urgent and it’s serious and it’s unconscionable.”

Richard Gelles, who teaches child welfare and is the dean of the School of Social Policy and Practice at the University of Pennsylvania, said he recently reviewed the “scorecard” that Wilkins has been using to evaluate and rank the efforts of child abuse investigators. The instrument, he said, measures only processes, such as whether an investigation is completed within 60 days, but not outcomes.

“It came as a pretty big surprise to me that the scorecard is not connected in any meaningful way with how every child welfare agency should be measured: the safety, security and well-being of children,” Gelles said.

“Sometimes, you have a cluster of deaths that are just bad luck,” Gelles added. Good child welfare systems, he said, use such moments as opportunities to take a long look at what they’re doing. DCF “owes it to themselves, and they owe it to the state, to at least make a determination as to whether they have faulty workers, faulty supervisors or a faulty system.”

In recent days, Gov. Rick Scott has stood by his embattled child welfare chief, saying he believes Wilkins will oversee the kind of post-mortem and reform Gelles was suggesting.

On Wednesday, the governor praised Wilkins. Commenting on Ezra’s death, Scott told reporters: “You would hate for anything to happen to any child ... Any time anything like this happens, you take it very seriously and the expectation is you go back and make sure it doesn’t happen again. I think Secretary Wilkins is doing a very good job. He’s very committed to doing the right thing. He’s very committed to making sure that every child is taken care of, and he’ll do the right thing in looking into this.”

Last February, a concerned citizen told DCF’s child abuse hotline that Ezra had been abandoned by his mom, herself a former foster child, who allegedly left him with a virtual stranger. The “caregiver” was a friend of Raphael’s former foster mother. The caregiver took Ezra to a doctor’s office in Gainesville seeking routine medical care, but the doctor became concerned when the woman could not explain how she came to have custody of the boy. She also did not have proper paperwork to make medical decisions on behalf of the child.

A DCF investigator looked into the matter for about 20 days before concluding that, despite the “high” risk Raphael presented to her son, Ezra was safe with the caregiver and DCF need not take any actions to protect him. The investigator asked the caregiver to call the state if Raphael ever reappeared to claim her son. Records suggest that a call was never made.

Raphael told police she routinely left her son alone while she walked the streets of North Miami-Dade selling herself. On June 21, she left him with Alexis, whose criminal history totals about 20 arrests, including ones for strong-armed robbery, drug possession, car theft and three for battery — one allegedly on a law enforcement officer. When police asked Raphael why she left her son with Alexis, she replied: “To make some money.”

That night, Alexis told police, he became angry when he awoke to find Ezra had turned on a bathroom faucet and sent water spilling “all over” the floor. Alexis later walked to the North Miami Beach Police Department after being unable to sleep, he said. In a reported confession, he told detectives he was “upset with the victim and struck him in on the back and buttocks with a belt. He stated that he did not mean for this to happen.”

At Jackson North Medical Center, where the boy was pronounced dead, police saw “several bruises, a laceration to the upper left eye, bruises on the face, back and multiple wounds on [Ezra’s] legs,” a police report said.

Raphael acknowledged that last week’s beating likely was not her son’s first.

In an interview with police, Raphael said “she noticed bruising on [Ezra’s] body in the past, but took no action to find out how the bruises were sustained.”

Steve Bousquet of the Herald/Times Tallahassee bureau contributed to this report from Tallahassee.

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