When Joshua Jenkins broke his arm, his parents blamed it on the boys bed.
When Joshuas face and chest were bruised, they pointed a finger at the dentist.
And when the youngster needed staples to close a head gash, they said the youngster ran into a wall.
Joshua was either the clumsiest kid in Cape Coral or somebodys punching bag.
Joshuas teachers and counselors were certain it was the latter. They reported his parents at least three times to the states child abuse hotline. Joshua himself told authorities his stepfather was beating him, saying Daddy did it in the fall of 2006 when he arrived at school with purple bruises on his ear, arm, chin, neck and head.
We knew he was being abused in that home, said Sharon Lennox, one of Joshuas pre-K teachers.
Everybody could see it except the Department of Children & Families, whose job is to recognize abuse and shield children like Joshua. Investigators dismissed the teachers concerns. Joshua paid with his life.
Hundreds of pages of records reviewed by the Miami Herald suggest DCF did not consider the possibility that Joshuas teachers and counselors could be right. In their failures, they traveled a well-worn path.
Before there was Joshua Jenkins, there was Kayla McKean. Starting in April 1997, Kayla showed up at school in Orange County with a variety of injuries, including a broken nose, two fractures to her left hand and two black eyes that were swollen shut. Teachers told DCF. Her father, Richard Adams, had an explanation for all of it. DCF decided his explanations were credible.
Adams beat Kayla to death after she soiled her pants, then buried her in the Ocala National Forest on Thanksgiving Eve. He reported her missing, spurring a huge hunt, before confessing. Adams is serving a life sentence.
A 1998 grand jury investigating that breakdown recommended that all reports of suspected abuse emanating from a school employee be given a presumption of validity since, in such cases, parents have an obvious incentive to lie while educators dont.
Many times, the report said, the teacher, principal or counselor is in the best position to recognize a pattern of abuse for what it is.
That lesson was forgotten by the time Joshua came along.
Teachers take note
Joshua barely stayed at any school long enough for his teachers to know him well. He attended at least three campuses over a two-year period as his parents transferred him in response to the frequent abuse reports.
He struggled with a speech impairment that made him difficult to understand and was diagnosed with developmental delay. In other ways, Joshua seemed typical: He slept between a set of Spiderman bedsheets and watched Disneys "Cars" enough to know the lines by heart. He got a new bike for Christmas and liked pool and air hockey.
Whatever Joshua did or didnt do at home to trigger his stepfathers rage, his teachers insist that, while mischievous, he was a sweet little boy who mostly tried to please.
Joshua arrived in Florida in 2006. His birth father killed himself. His mother, Rebecca Gayle, fled the ravages of post-Hurricane Katrina Mississippi with her newlywed husband, Phillipe, and her pre-school-age son.
It did not take long for Floridas abuse hotline to record Joshuas presence.
Oct. 9, 2006: Joshua arrived at Tanglewood/Riverside Elementary with scratches on his neck, finger-shaped bruises under his chin and a bruise on his temple. The child welfare agency was alerted.
The schools assistant principal told a DCF investigator it was not the first time.
The Gayles had an explanation actually, several. They said a student named Kendall or Kristin was bullying Joshua, although there were no students by either name at Tanglewood.
Other marks on Joshuas face were skin irritation caused by a new soap. His shoulder bruise was caused by a classmate pushing him. Scratches on his hand occurred at a park. The scratch to his ear? The barber did that. The mark on his neck was a bug bite.
The most serious injury required Joshua to have his scalp stapled. His mother blamed it on a wall.
DCF believed his parents. The Gayles, a report said, were resilient and work together.
There is no suspected abuse of any kind toward Joshua, investigator Danielle DePhillip opined on Oct. 10, 2006. Overall, risk is extremely low, she added later.
It wasnt long before Joshuas teachers sounded the alarm again.
On Dec. 12, 2006, the hotline was told that Joshua had dark brown bruises on his wrist. Dad, Joshua told his teachers, had kicked him on his bottom and hit him in the chest and stomach, leaving more bruises.
Joshua, 4 at the time, told a team of doctors and nurses who specialize in detecting child abuse that his stepfather frequently punched and kicked him, and that he had vomited once after Gayle slugged him in the stomach. He said his stepfather sometimes choked him when he misbehaved.
Not true, the Gayles said. The bruises on Joshuas wrists were made by boxing gloves; a handicapped child at the park bruised his torso by tickling him too hard.
We are not abusive parents, Rebecca Gayle said. He bruises easily. She accused the school of discriminating against her because she was a white woman married to an African-American man. She planned to correct the problem by changing schools.
Risk to Joshua, investigator Wendi Braswell wrote, was low because his parents were protective and concerned.
DCF ended the investigation in February 2007, calling risk to the boy extremely low. The agency recommended the Gayles take parenting classes and undergo counseling and that Phillipe Gayle submit to anger management training. The Gayles declined.
The couple enrolled Joshua in another school, J. Colin English Elementary. A few months later, the hotline was ringing with three new reports.
Joshua, DCF was told on May 2, 2007, had new bruises on his arm, face and chest. The next day, reports two and three arrived: The boy had more bruises to his elbow and forearm, and his neck was hurting.
The parents again had an explanation: A bike helmet caused Joshuas facial bruising. The bruised arm came from the dentist holding Joshua down. The Gayles provided evidence that Joshua had a blood-clotting disorder that made him bleed more than most children. Investigators didnt contact the dentist to ask whether he or she had injured the boy.
A DCF supervisor suggested the boys mother call the school board to complain about what she called harassment.
After those May 2007 hotline calls, Joshua clung to the leg of teacher Carmen Nieves when Phillipe Gayle came to pick him up from school.
Joshua did not want to go that day, said another teacher, Sharon Lennox. He cried and cried and cried.
It was the last anyone at the school saw of the boy, as the Gayles immediately transferred him to another elementary.
The last hotline call was received at exactly 6 p.m. on Feb. 18, 2008. Joshua was dying in a hospital. He had been brought in with multiple bruises on his face, head and rib cage. Also, someone had bitten him. The autopsy cited multiple blunt-force trauma to the boys abdomen, diaphragm, lungs and liver; deep marks on his head and bites to his feet. He had lost nearly a gallon of blood.
Detectives believe Gayle snapped that balmy February morning when Joshua, age 6, wet the bed the two were sharing.
In an interrogation that takes up 359 pages, Gayle initially denied laying a hand on his stepson, then his story began to evolve.
Detective Christy Ellis, who had observed the boys autopsy, slipped into sarcasm: Underneath his skin there is a large bruise basically going all around his ear Its not from the barber shop.
Detective Kurt Grau jumped in: Youre using him as a piñata!
As he had in the past, Gayle offered explanations. He said he was only playing when he bit Joshuas foot. Joshua injured his head against a dresser while the two were playing. The fatal stomach injuries? Gayle threw Joshua up in the sky and he landed on Gayles fist.
My head is hurting, Gayle said, upset that he was being depicted as the bad guy.
My heart is, Ellis shot back, after being at that autopsy.
Phillipe Gayle, charged with aggravated manslaughter, was convicted and sentenced to 30 years. Joshuas mother was not charged.
In the last report, DCF acknowledged what others had been telling the agency: Joshua was the victim of severe child abuse.
He was just a child. Its so tragic, said Carmen Nieves, the teacher whose leg Joshua clung to and who still sobs when she discusses him. I didnt think it could be so painful.