On the day before she died, Jewel Re’nee Howard sat on the porch, in her grandmother’s lap, having her hair twisted into ponytails made pretty with pink and purple beads. She played outside the home with neighborhood children, ate noodles, talked and giggled, as she had so many days before, about her dream of becoming a princess.
Less than 15 hours later, Jewel was dead — her liver torn and mangled, ribs crushed, her tiny body bruised and bleeding internally.
“Every night when I try to go to sleep, I ask myself, how could this have happened to my baby?’’ says her paternal grandmother, Tiffany Howard, who often cared for her.
A month ago, the head of the state agency designed to protect Florida’s children resigned amid a widening scandal over the deaths of four small children within six weeks, all with a history of involvement with child-abuse investigators.
The reality of mounting child deaths in Florida is far grimmer.
A Miami Herald investigation — which included a review of hundreds of pages of agency emails, incident reports and other documents obtained through Florida’s public records law — shows the number of children who died is nearly four times what had been acknowledged.
Jewel is among 20 children with child protection histories who have died since April 11, a span that saw the resignation of Department of Children & Families Secretary David Wilkins.
“We are deeply saddened any time a child dies in Florida, but especially when DCF has had prior involvement with their families,” said Esther Jacobo, DCF’s interim secretary.
“That’s why I’ve ordered a review of all child fatalities caused by abuse or neglect and invited a nationally renowned child welfare foundation to scrutinize the findings.’’
Even before the new tally, legislators were working to try to stanch the trend: The chairwoman of the state Senate’s Children, Families & Elder Affairs Committee, Hollywood Democrat Eleanor Sobel, will host a “town hall” meeting Tuesday with members of the delegations of Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties.
Jacobo will be there to discuss “steps that the department is taking to prevent any more tragedies.”
In an Aug. 1 letter to Gov. Rick Scott, four members of the U.S. House of Representatives from Florida urged the governor to convene an “independent panel” to recommend reforms that go beyond fleeting “promises and overhauls.”
Weeks before Jewel died, the 3-year-old had told her birth father that her mother’s boyfriend had beaten her face, leaving a large laceration on her lip requiring stitches, according to a DCF report. And although both Jewel’s mother, Asia Rosier, and her boyfriend, Jumar Edwards, already had a substantial history of arrests and charges, DCF didn’t act for weeks — sufficient time for Jewel to die brutally, police allege, at the hands of the couple one Friday in April, the morning after she had gotten her hair done and played princess.
As with Jewel, the deadly toll, from newborns to teenagers, was caused mostly by one or the other of the youngsters’ own parents — all of whom had come to DCF’s attention at least once before the tragedies occurred. They unfolded across the state, the cases bound only by the role the state did or did not play in the period leading up the child’s death.