Child welfare

Homestead man charged with shaking toddler to death

 

cmarbin@MiamiHerald.com

A Homestead man has been charged with shaking his 2-year-old son to death last week — one month after state child welfare administrators gave him custody of the toddler even though he was unemployed, living in a one-bedroom home with eight other children, had been repeatedly accused of domestic violence and had admitted to child-welfare authorities that he had “an anger issue.”

Two-year-old Jayden Antonio Villegas-Morales became the fifth Florida youngster to die since May after having already come to the attention of state child-protection administrators.

The deaths may also have claimed the job of Department of Children & Families Secretary David Wilkins, who had been Gov. Rick Scott’s longest-serving agency head.

Wilkins abruptly resigned last week amid a growing scandal over the deaths of children whose safety had already been investigated by DCF.

Jayden’s father, 28-year-old Angel Luis Villegas, was charged Sunday with second-degree murder.

Last week, before Jayden succumbed to his injuries, Villegas told Miami-Dade police he “became frustrated” with the little boy, who had been vomiting for much of the day on July 17, and “threw the victim on the bed, which resulted in [his] striking his head against the wall,” a police report says.

In an unusual move for an agency that had remained extremely tight-lipped as the child death scandal unfolded, DCF’s interim secretary, Esther Jacobo, released nearly 100 pages of records Monday, and discussed Jayden’s death openly with a reporter.

The head of DCF’s privately run foster care agency in Miami, called Our Kids, also discussed the case.

“All of the professionals involved are grieving the senseless and brutal way Jayden’s young life ended,” said a statement released Monday jointly by Our Kids and the Children’s Home Society, a group that had been involved with Jayden’s family.

“These tragedies should not happen. We are working with our partners to understand exactly what happened and what changes need to be made immediately,” the statement added.

Both DCF and Our Kids have launched a “painstaking review of every detail of what went wrong with this family,” the agencies said. “The murder of an innocent child at the hands of his father while the family was under state supervision is completely unacceptable. The review of the details of this case is gut-wrenching for all of the professionals involved.”

LONG HISTORY

Jayden and his siblings had been the subject of at least five prior investigations by DCF. An investigation last month, which resulted in Jayden being removed from his mother’s care and sent to live with his father, was not provided to the newspaper because it involved a sibling whose records are confidential, DCF said.

The Herald filed suit in Miami-Dade court Monday to obtain the records of that investigation, and Jacobo said her department would not fight the request.

The toddler’s involvement with the state appears to have begun in February 2011, with allegations that he was living in a “filthy” home overrun with cockroaches and littered with dirty diapers.

“The baby bottles are nasty and not cleaned after use,” a caller to DCF said, adding that both Villegas and Jayden’s mom, Lourdes Morales, were smoking marijuana “in front of the children.”

The investigation was closed on March 31, 2011, with an investigator concluding he could not substantiate the allegations.

But the case has an odd asterisk: The DCF investigator, Jean Lacroix, was arrested a year later on charges that he was pimping out foster children assigned to his care as part of a sexual trafficking ring.

Lacroix’s supervisor in the case, Duray Smith, resigned in May after the Herald reported he had been moonlighting as a substitute teacher — sometimes on the same days he was working at DCF — without seeking the approval of the department.

For several months, Jayden lived with both Villegas and Morales in an unusual Homestead household: Villegas was living with his girlfriend, 24-year-old Guadalupe Jaramillo, with whom he was expecting a child, and her four children. Morales was living in the home with the couple, and was expecting her fourth child with Villegas.

When an investigator arrived at the home, Jaramillo at first identified herself as Villegas’ sister.

ABUSE

Villegas had been repeatedly accused of abusing Morales, and in April, he was charged with domestic battery after he allegedly “grabbed” Morales “violently, causing injury to her right arm,” according to a Florida City police report.

Prosecutors dropped the charges against Villegas on the same day he is alleged to have attacked Jayden, however, when Morales could not be located, records show.

Villegas acknowledged to a DCF investigator in March 2012 that he had “an anger issue and wants counseling.” It is unclear whether Villegas ever received the treatment, however, when the March 2012 investigation was closed.

“We are really saddened, and pretty upset about this child’s death,” said Jacobo. “There were a lot of missed opportunities in this case.”

An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the manner in which Duray Smith, a former DCF supervisor, left the agency. Smith resigned in May.

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