The purple bruises on either side of Ahizya Osceola’s jaw were telltale signs: Someone, a child abuse expert said, had grabbed the 3-year-old’s face forcefully enough to leave fingerprints.
But Ahizya’s bruised jaw was only a small part of what the boy faced. The state’s abuse hotline received a report on April 21, 2014, that he had scratches on both sides of his neck, and a “large bruise and bump” on his forehead. Two weeks earlier, teachers saw a “pinch mark” on one ear, a bruise behind the other and two bruises on his face.
Two weeks before that, Ahizya had a busted lip, another scratch on his face, a bruise on his shoulder blade and pinches and bruises on his ears. Ahizya told his preschool teacher that “daddy” hit him with a belt. His father, Nelson Osceola, instead described an active and clumsy toddler who frequently injured himself in run-ins with furniture, walls, a toilet and other children during an Easter party.
Broward County child protection investigators discounted the possibility of abuse and left him with a father who had a lengthy rap sheet — including aggravated assault charges — and a history of alleged drug use. The Broward Sheriff’s Office had one last chance to intervene in December, when the state’s abuse hotline was told that Ahizya’s stepmother had beaten his bottom, and he had bruises and abrasions on his face. But that call, too, went unheeded.
On Wednesday, Nelson Osceola and the stepmother, Analiz Osceola, were arrested by Hollywood police in connection with Ahizya’s death the previous week. He was found last Friday concealed by garbage bags in the family’s laundry room. Analiz Osceola faces the bulk of the charges: aggravated manslaughter, child neglect and giving false information to police conducting an investigation. Nelson Osceola is charged with one count of child neglect.
“He lived a rough life and he must have endured a significant amount of pain in his short three years of life,” said Hollywood Police Chief Frank Fernandez.
The Broward Medical Examiner said Ahizya died of blunt trauma, though it remained unclear what caused the fatal injuries, Fernandez said. At an afternoon news conference, he described a child who had to contend with abuse perhaps his entire life, and whose fatal injuries last week were too “graphic” to share with the public. In Ahizya’s abbreviated life, Fernandez said, “he sustained many injuries.”
Although Analiz Osceola almost certainly knew her stepson was badly injured, she returned to bed, a court record said. Later, the stepmother wrapped the toddler in garbage bags, tied them, and placed the boy in a box. Then, she covered his remains with bags of clothing to hide her secret, Fernandez said.
Analiz Osceola, who is pregnant, was arrested just as she was discharged from a psychiatric hospital, where she had remained 72 hours for an involuntary examination, Fernandez said.
When contacted by the Miami Herald, BSO asked that questions be submitted in writing, but then said it needed more time to provide answers.
Ahizya’s photograph — with his broad smile, jet black hair and traditional Seminole Indian Tribe jacket — flooded South Florida news media last week when he was reported missing on Thursday, setting off a frantic hunt with dogs, helicopters and door-to-door searches. He was found 10 hours later, the next morning, bruised and cold, stuffed in a box.
As they had before, the boy’s caregivers said Ahizya was responsible for his catalog of injuries: “When the child was located, he had extensive bruising from head to toe,” a report said. “The stepmother explained the … injuries [were] due to the child being very clumsy.”
The Florida Department of Children & Families, which pays BSO to perform child abuse investigations in Broward County, released 27 pages of reports Wednesday detailing the state’s history with Ahizya’s family. Contact between DCF and the boy’s parents — Osceola and mother Karen Cypress — appears to have begun in August 2013, when DCF’s hotline was told that, on several occasions, the toddler had returned from visits with his father “with unexplained bruises and a busted lip.”
The report added: “The father smokes marijuana daily,” and Ahizya “smells like smoke” when he’s around him. “Whenever the mother drops Ahizya to the father’s house, he has unexplained bruises and appears to be lighter.”
Cypress, the boy’s mother, also was under scrutiny. DCF was told that she drank daily, to the point of intoxication, “falling, stumbling and vomiting over her clothes.” Cypress also abused cocaine, the agency was told.
The state’s Child Protection Team, which examines children for signs of abuse, concluded that Ahizya’s injuries were consistent with the family’s explanation that the toddler had hit his head on a bunk bed. Cypress signed a “safety plan” agreeing to accept better-parenting services from the tribe.
But the following January, DCF’s hotline received a new report: Ahizya was found wandering the lobby of a hotel alone while his mother was upstairs passed out drunk. Cypress later was arrested on child neglect charges. Ahizya’s twin half-siblings were failing to thrive, and had been medically neglected by their mother, the report alleged.
When Ahizya was observed by an investigator, he sported a “red mark on the side of his left eye.”
“Ms. Karen Cypress recently displayed bad judgment when she left her children unsupervised while she was passed out from intoxication,” said a report dated Jan. 21, 2014. Ahizya was removed from his mother’s home, and sent to live with Nelson Osceola and his wife, Analiz.
But the reports kept coming. The next allegation arrived on April 21, 2014. Though the source of the complaint is confidential, the report makes clear that Ahizya’s preschool teachers were concerned that he kept arriving at the Nob Hill Academy covered in bruises. Ahizya, the report said, “has been observed with several bruises on a weekly basis.”
Ahizya told his teacher that his dad hit him with a belt. He later told an investigator he fell in his room.
Osceola said the boy “hit his head” at an Easter party. And he had explanations for all the other bruises, as well: Ahizya bumped his head on a bed at home. He fell in the bathtub. He fell off a toilet. He “falls all the time [and] sometimes does not pay attention to where he is walking, and will walk into the table, the counter tops and other things.”
“The father also advised the child will bruise easily as his immune system is low,” a report said.
The Child Protection Team found no evidence that most of the child’s extensive bruising resulted from child abuse. But the fingerprints on Ahizya’s jaw were worrisome, a report said, and “positive for physical abuse.” Someone, a report said, had grabbed the boy’s face with “enough force” to cause oval-shaped bruises.
The investigation was closed in June 2014 when Osceola signed a “safety plan” pledging to keep Ahizya safe, and a counselor from the tribe was assigned to monitor his compliance. The safety plan itself was not included in the documents provided to reporters Wednesday. Generally, they are written promises to avoid drugs, violence or other behaviors that are dangerous to children. Lawmakers essentially banned “promissory note” safety plans last spring as part of an overhaul of child welfare laws.
On Dec. 7, DCF received one last report, once again alleging physical abuse. Cypress picked up her son for a visit and noticed a bruise on his cheek. The boy’s bottom was hurt, too, and he said his “mommy” — referring to Analiz Osceola — was responsible for his sore bottom. When Cypress asked Osceola about the bruising, he said, once again, that the little boy had fallen.
“There is concern that Ahizya is being abused at the father’s house,” the report said. “There is concern that anytime something happens to Ahizya, the father will say that he has fallen.”
Nelson and Analiz Osceola denied harming the boy, and the investigation was closed, once again, without findings of physical abuse.
Kenneth Tommie, the toddler’s maternal grandfather, said he did not understand the state’s decision not to act on the December report. Tommie said he had seen the boy that month, and had been told about the bruising on his grandson’s rear.
“He was scared,” Tommie said. “He didn’t want to go home.”