At his grandmother’s Lee County home, life was bleak for Michael McMullen and his three siblings. They slept in an animal’s cage, were apparently beaten, and may have been drugged as well to keep them manageable.
Child welfare workers are supposed to rescue children from such a home.
Except child welfare workers were the ones who put the kids in the home of grandma Gale Watkins — after deciding their mother’s home was too dangerous an environment.
By the time the Department of Children & Families grasped that things were even worse at the grandmother’s home, it was too late for Michael. The 3-year-old was dead. According to the Lee County Sheriff’s Office, he died when he was wrapped tightly, straitjacket style, in various layers of blanketing, a form of discipline in the home of Gale Watkins.
The boy was trussed up so tightly he simply stopped breathing.
Watkins, 56, has been charged with aggravated manslaughter of a child, as has the boyfriend of the boy’s mother — 21-year-old Douglas Garrigus — and a 45-year-old family friend, Donella Trainor. The three were charged because all were caretakers at the time of the death.
Detectives said Trainor had developed the unusual method of disciplining Michael. The little boy would be wrapped in a blanket, with the ends of the blankets tied down “so as to prevent movement or escape.” On Oct. 19, the day of his death, Michael was “being disciplined for crying and being too rowdy,” police said. He was restrained in “six layers” of a blanket, placed face-down in bed, and then ignored as he “screamed and pleaded to be released.”
“Michael was so upset he could be heard hyperventilating and gasping for breaths as he cried,” a police report said. Garrigus told the boy to calm down, and then walked away.
Soon, Michael stopped crying.
At the time of his death, Michael had bruises on his forehead and eye, as well as bruising inside his mouth, the Medical Examiner’s Office reported.
Michael is among at least 25 children who have died since spring after DCF had investigated allegations of abuse or neglect and declared them to be safe.
“It’s horrific — a horrific murder of this poor baby,” DCF Secretary Esther Jacobo said Monday
Both DCF and its private social-work agency in Lee County, Lutheran Services of Florida, should have done a better job of recognizing “the red flags” that were present in the boy’s home, Jacobo said. “At the very least,” Jacobo added, case workers should have significantly increased the number of visits. Investigators and caseworkers also should have seriously considered asking the judge who oversaw the family to remove the four children from the grandmother and place them in the home of either another relative, or a foster family, she said.
Michael’s death, Jacobo added, remains under investigation. “In our work with law enforcement, we feel confident that those responsible will spend many years behind bars for the horrible atrocity they committed against this innocent young boy.”
Lutheran Services of Florida fired two case workers last week, saying they “failed to follow policies.”
“While these policy violations did not cause the death of Michael, LSF will not rest until all questions are answered so we can ensure the safety of children in our care,” the group’s president, Samuel Sipes, wrote in a statement. “Lutheran Services of Florida is shocked and saddened by the tragic death of Michael McMullen, allegedly at the hands of adults responsible for his care,” the statement added.