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.