Lax work, critical error proved fatal for children

José Antonio Pérez beat his own children to death with a pointed, 15-pound steel rod.

12/30/2002 5:26 PM

03/13/2008 6:03 PM

Ana, 13, was sleeping in bed when her father struck her three times on the back of her head. Younger brother Anthony, 12, tried to run away.

But his father, a laborer and former boxer, dragged him back into the bedroom and killed him. Pérez, 48, tried to hang himself from the ceiling fan, but it collapsed under his 110-pound weight.

"You will never be happy, " he wrote Maria Christina González, the children's mother, in a suicide note.

It was Oct. 13, 2000.

Ana and Anthony are among at least 100 Florida children who died while under the state's protective supervision - after questionable investigations by the Department of Children & Families failed to appreciate the gravity of key warning signs that families were in trouble, The Herald has found.

Before Ana and Anthony died, several calls warned the DCF hot line that the children were in danger. But the probe soured: Hot-line operators mistakenly concluded the mother was putting her children at risk.

And the lead investigator missed critical opportunities to find González and her children - because he had not checked court files that would have told him where the children attended school and the mother worked.

"I was juggling so many cases, " said Derrick Heath, now a DCF supervisor. "I tried three times to find the family but they were never home. Things happened too quickly. It's not easy when two children are dead."

The first two warning calls came Oct. 7, six days before the deaths.

"There is concern that her children may be in danger, " the report notes. "Father has a history of domestic violence against the mother. Father has a history of drug use and drinking and had been imprisoned for domestic violence against the mother."

Two more warning calls to the DCF followed the next morning.

Somehow, hot-line operators wrongly believed González was the culprit by not protecting the children from the threats. The DCF ordered a visual inspection of the family: "If allegations of failure to protect are true and child is at risk remove and file petition."

WRONG JUDGMENT

"The hot line incorrectly passed judgment on the mother, " said Nancy Barshter, a member of a state-wide death-review team that examined the DCF's handling of the case. "I don't think DCF totally put together the danger to her and her family."

On Oct. 8, the caseworker went to the house at 1 p.m. but found no one at home.

Heath filled out a Child Safety Assessment that same day, noting that the DCF had three prior cases with the family, including a 1995 incident where Pérez nearly beat González to death.

The assessment helps caseworkers and supervisors determine how much danger a child faces - on the basis of the child's age, the family's history, caregivers' criminal records and other factors. Among the questions asked:

* Does parent or caregiver have a history of domestic violence as a victim or perpetrator?

Heath checked off "Suspected." "The [adult parent] in this case is very violent." * Does parent, caregiver have a criminal history?

"Not known."

Public records showed Pérez had been released from state prison in March 1999 after completing part of a five-year sentence for trying to kill González.

* Is there is a pattern of continuing, escalating and/or increasing frequency of incidents, regardless of findings?

"Not known."

But much was known by others. On Oct. 2, González had filed a restraining order against Pérez and reported his threats to police. The restraining order contained the name of Pérez's employer, González's employer and the childrens' schools. Portions of the DCF's own hot-line report indicated that Pérez was "stalking" González and banging her car with chains. The hot-line caller also knew the family's whereabouts.

POLICE NOT ALERTED

The child assessment also shows Miami-Dade County police detectives - who were investigating Pérez's threats - were not notified.

"There was clearly an escalating pattern of violence with this guy, " said homicide Detective Joe Mallot, who arrested Pérez, "although I don't think anyone suspected he would kill the kids. He wanted his wife dead."

On Oct. 9, the caseworker went to the house at 6 p.m. and found no one at home. The worker returned to the house three days later at 7 p.m. No one was there. Heath said he cannot remember why it took him so long to return.

Meanwhile, internal DCF memos following the deaths questioned the investigator's moves.

"[Why didn't he go to the school?], " a DCF administrator later wrote. "I checked school records and Anthoney [sic] was present that day but Ana was absent."

Said Heath: "That was my next step, along with the courthouse."

González said that only after the murders did DCF caseworkers show up at the home where she occasionally hid with the children.

"We've been looking for you, " González quoted them. "My kids were dead and suddenly DCF found the place they couldn't find before."

The death review also concluded that police needed to do a better job in domestic violence cases and that staffers at the hot line "should document accurate allegations statements without drawing conclusions [Staff should have identified the deceased children's father as the perpetrator]."

WORDS FAIL

"I don't know what anyone can say to account for a tragedy of such proportions, " said Chelly Schembera, who was appointed interim district administrator in Miami last month. "This is one of many cases where an appropriate assessment of risk, and better coordination between government agencies, might have changed what happened. We'll never know that now."

On Sept. 24, 2001, Pérez collapsed and died inside his jail cell, 10B1, while awaiting trial. He had had a seizure.

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