When 18-month-old Fernando Luis Barahona was airlifted to a St. Petersburg children’s hospital, he had sustained two skull fractures, his head was “swollen and misshapen” and he had both new and old bruises on his forehead, spine and eyebrow — as well as scratches and a “hand print.”
His mother, Elvia Enid Fernandez, blamed the trauma on the family dog.
Fernandez’s boyfriend was the only adult at home when Fernando was injured, and he had an unsettling history of child abuse allegations. Child welfare workers insisted the boyfriend leave Fernandez’s home. And they wanted him to take the deadly dog with him.
Fernandez got rid of the canine, but kept her boyfriend. Less than three weeks later, Fernando was dead. And there was no dog left to blame.
Fernando, who lived in Lee County in Southwest Florida, is among several children who perished during a grim summer of violence and neglect.
The Miami Herald has previously reported on the toddler’s death, but details of his case remained hidden while the Department of Children & Families investigated his June 3 killing.
On Friday, DCF released scores of pages of new records, including an agency internal review of the events leading to his death.
DCF’s interim secretary, Esther Jacobo, said Friday that the agency will look deeper into Fernando’s case as part of a comprehensive review of child deaths this year — and the role played by state child welfare workers.
“We are saddened at the death of 1-year-old Fernando Barahona,” said Jacobo, who oversaw DCF’s Miami region until being appointed interim secretary.
“In this case, as in many other cases, DCF worked closely with law enforcement to make decisions about dangerous living conditions, but we can never forget, as a department, that we have a different role than law enforcement and that we must rely on our own investigation and analysis.”
She added: “I am encouraged that we are openly discussing these tragedies and hopeful that together with our community we can improve our practice.”
No charges have been filed yet in Fernando’s death.
State child abuse investigators first became aware of Fernando Barahona on May 17, when he arrived at All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg by helicopter.
He had suffered fractures to both the back and side of his skull. He also had older “purplish” bruises on his lower back, DCF’s abuse hotline was told.
Fernandez told doctors and nurses that her toddler was injured after the dog knocked him over onto a tile floor. But the medical authorities weren’t buying it.
A nurse practitioner in the hospital’s neurosurgery department said the gravity of Fernando’s injuries seemed inconsistent with a “fall from only standing on the ground.”
The nurse “did not think the injury matches with the story.”
The state’s Child Protection Team arrived at the same conclusion, writing: “Injury does not seem consistent with” the family’s story.
But Fernandez, an investigator wrote, “stated she is willing to be protective of all of her children and ensure nothing happens to them in the future.” She signed a “safety plan” promising to keep boyfriend Ron Midkiff out.
The pledge proved worthless.
First, DCF investigators began to soften their demand that Midkiff be banished from the Fernandez home. On May 23, an investigator told the toddler’s mom that Midkiff could attend a Memorial Day cookout, so long as Fernandez “supervised” his contact with her children. An agency report says Fernandez claimed she thought she’d gotten permission to return her boyfriend to the home permanently. For his part, Midkiff demanded “to know how long the [agency] was going to keep him from his family.”
Four days after the cookout, DCF’s hotline received yet another report — which strongly suggested Fernandez had already reneged on her promise to keep Midkiff away.
Midkiff, the report said, “smacked the mother in the back of the head,” and pulled Fernando by the hair, in front of horrified daycare workers. An abuse hotline worker wrote: “There are concerns that the paramour is mean to the children.”
On May 31, a DCF investigator accused Fernandez of violating the days-old safety plan. But, comforted by yet another promise by Fernandez to protect her children, the investigator reported she “does not have any concerns … regarding the family.”
Administrators had planned to protect Fernando and his siblings by suggesting the couple accept “intensive diversionary services,” including anger management classes and mental health treatment. The new plan was set to begin on June 3.
That’s the day Fernando died. The Lee County medical examiner concluded the then-22-month-old was strangled. The death is classified a homicide.
‘BEING A KID’
After Fernando was killed, a daycare worker told DCF she had “observed bruises” on the little boy before, but they were dismissed by his mother as “being a kid.”
For her part, Fernandez defended her boyfriend to the bitter end. When DCF suggested — again — that Midkiff leave her house, Fernandez objected.
“Mother stated that she doesn’t understand why he has to leave,” a report says. “She doesn’t feel that the paramour could have done” the killing.