Department of Children & Families

How the child safety net failed Ezra Raphael

 

cmarbin@MiamiHerald.com

When state child welfare administrators first spoke with Cierrah Raphael in early 2013, they reported she was a 21-year-old prostitute and drug user who had abandoned her baby son with a virtual stranger. She had lost custody of an older child by failing to complete anger management and drug treatment programs intended to make her a better parent.

Department of Children & Families investigator Beth Mack closed her investigation of the Miami-Dade woman on Feb. 21, allowing Elizabeth Wims of Gainesville to continue raising little Ezra Raphael. But Mack left an asterisk in the file: If Cierrah Raphael made any attempt to retrieve her son, Wims was advised to call DCF again.

Wims says she did exactly that, “begging” Mack to protect the boy from his wayward mom. A preschool teacher says she made a similar plea.

Mack insists she got no such calls.

What’s certain is this: Raphael retrieved her son in April, and he was dead two months later. His mother’s boyfriend, Claude Alexis, whipped Ezra to death with a belt, he told North Miami Beach police, because the boy spilled water on a bathroom floor. He was 2 years old.

His mother, Raphael, had been out prostituting that night.

Alexis now faces charges of first-degree murder and aggravated child abuse, and is awaiting trial in jail. Raphael was jailed on child neglect charges.

“They killed my baby,” Wims, who lives in Gainesville, told The Miami Herald. “I’m very upset with them,” she said of DCF. “Very upset.”

Ezra is one of at least seven children to die while on DCF’s radar during a bloody Florida summer.

DCF’s interim secretary, who was the agency’s top administrator in Miami when many of the events involving Ezra unfolded, said Thursday that the boy’s death will be included in a comprehensive review of recent child deaths her agency is conducting.

Esther Jacobo said investigator Mack denies having any contact with Wims after she closed her February investigation.

If it turns out she is lying, she could be the latest at DCF to lose a job because of a child death.

“It is because of tragedies, like the heartbreaking and potentially preventable loss of Ezra, that I have ordered a thorough review of all child fatalities due to abuse and neglect in 2013 with prior involvement by the department,” Jacobo said. “We owe it to these children to look at our processes, take corrective actions and improve the way we do our work. No option is off the table as we look for ways to better protect Florida’s vulnerable children.”

To help complete the review, Jacobo said she has partnered with Seattle-based Casey Family Programs, which provides technical assistance to state child welfare efforts. The Casey consultants will help DCF collect and analyze data, identify trends and “offer insights which we can use to improve our processes.”

“My goal,” Jacobo said, “is to do everything we can to engage our partners in our efforts to keep children safe, and this is a big step toward that goal.”

Cierrah Raphael had vast experience with the state’s foster care system. She was partly raised in it.

In 2010, Raphael was transformed from a so-called “child victim” of parental abuse or neglect to a suspected “perpetrator.”

Her young child was taken into state custody, and Raphael was ordered to complete a series of tasks, including drug treatment and anger management classes. But an internal DCF email obtained by the Herald shows Raphael was “non-compliant” with a court-ordered case plan, and the state ceased contact with her on Oct. 12, 2010, placing her older child in the permanent custody of the child’s father. Raphael was ordered to have “no contact” with the youngster.

In February of this year, Raphael’s name appeared once again on the state’s abuse hotline. Wims said she had called DCF herself, complaining that Raphael had all but given her baby Ezra to raise, but was collecting child support and food stamps herself, and refusing to provide Wims with the kind of power-of-attorney she needed to obtain routine medical care for the boy. Wims had to take Ezra to the emergency room for colds and checkups because she couldn’t get the boy access to Medicaid, the state’s insurance program for the needy.

Wims, 49, a March DCF email said, had been “taking care of the baby since June,” but when she asked Raphael to transfer child support payments, “the mom [threatened] to come and get the baby.”

A Feb. 18 email from Mack suggests the agency was strongly considering filing a motion to shelter Ezra — a preliminary step toward initiating a case before a child welfare judge. Records suggest the agency was likely to leave him with Wims — whom investigators believed to be a capable caregiver — but wanted to ensure that Wims had the money and resources she needed to care for him. DCF also wanted to ensure Raphael did not change her mind about raising him herself.

But when Mack closed her investigation on Feb. 21, she concluded there was no reason to intervene on behalf of the child, other than to provide free child care to Wims and resolve the dispute over child support. Though Ezra was at “high” risk of abuse or neglect due to his mother’s lack of fitness, Mack wrote, the risk was “mitigated due to the mother being in Miami” while Ezra was living in Gainesville with Wims.

Mack wrote she had “staffed” the case with DCF lawyers, and a “decision [was] made to not take legal action.” Mack left the door open for intervention later, though, by saying she had instructed Wims to call the department if Raphael sought to regain custody of her son.

Wims insists she made the call in April when both Raphael and Raphael’s former foster mom, a Miami Gardens woman with whom Wims is friendly, called her to demand Ezra’s return. “I called there to Ms. Beth’s office to let her know,” Wims told the Herald. “She said she had closed the case on Ezra and there was nothing else they could do.”

“I pleaded with Ms. Beth to please reopen the case,” Wims said. “But she said sorry, but there’s nothing that they can do.”

Ezra’s teacher at the Small World preschool in Gainesville said she spoke with Mack as well.

“I asked her nicely — I practically begged her,” said 45-year-old Brenda Odom, who lives in nearby Lake Butler. “I said Ezra was in better hands with Ms. Wims than with his mom. I said if [Raphael] is not capable, why chance it with him?”

“She said once the case is closed, there’s nothing she can do,” Odom told the Herald. “If I could have met her, I would have been on my knees begging her.”

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