Tamiyah Audain moaned softly under the linens in a bed she rarely left. Beneath the bedsheets, she had withered from a healthy 115 pounds to an emaciated 56. Her body had been ravaged by gaping bedsores, one of which grew so deep that a bone in her pelvis was visible.
Few knew of her torment.
Though the youngster was formally under the protection of the state, the severity of her suffering wasn’t truly known until police removed her body from a Lauderhill home. Tamiyah’s state-approved caregiver, her cousin, kept the severely disabled preteen hidden from doctors, therapists and teachers as she slowly wasted away. Police say a caseworker and two psychologists could have saved her, but they deliberately chose not to act.
For that, the three, along with the cousin, now face felony charges.
“This child died of apparent deprivational abuse, or torture,” said a sworn statement written by Lauderhill Police Sgt. Atina Johnson. “The caregiver made active steps to isolate her from therapists, who would have intervened in her nutritional and general neglected state.”
In September 2012, Tamiyah was left in the care of a cousin after her mother died of a neurological condition called tuberous sclerosis, which also afflicted Tamiyah. The cousin, Latoya Patterson, was arrested Tuesday on charges of felony murder. An indictment handed up in Broward Circuit Court says Tamiyah died as the result of aggravated child abuse. Patterson faces life imprisonment if convicted.
In court Wednesday afternoon, Broward County Judge John Hurley read from the indictment: Patterson, it charged, had tortured, “maliciously” punished, had essentially caged, and “deprived [Tamiyah] of necessary food, nutrition and medical services.”
“As a consequence,” Hurley read, Tamiyah was allowed to “linger, languish and die.”
Patterson, 33, was one of four women indicted in connection with Tamiyah’s death, which occurred Sept. 25, 2013. Also charged was Jabeth Moye, a child welfare caseworker with Broward’s private foster care agency, ChildNet, which operates under contract with the Department of Children & Families. Moye, 34, who was fired by ChildNet last month, is charged with child neglect causing great bodily harm, which carries a maximum penalty of 15 years’ imprisonment upon conviction.
Also indicted were two professional psychologists, Juliana Gerena, 42, and Helen Richardson, 41. If convicted of failing to report suspected child abuse or neglect — charges that are filed very rarely across Florida and the United States — they face up to five years in prison.
The two documented that Tamiyah’s health was “fair to poor,” and the youngster displayed very poor hygiene, said Johnson, the police sergeant. The women’s reports suggested that they either knew — or should have known — “that abuse or neglect was playing a factor in her condition,” the sergeant added.
“Had someone said something, Tamiyah probably still would have been alive today,” Johnson said. “You’re supposed to protect children. And with all of these professionals that were directly involved in her life, someone should have seen something was wrong here. No one reported anything.”
Child welfare experts say the charges against the three professionals — as well as the arrest Friday of a Seminole County caseworker charged with falsifying records in another child death — signal a significant shift in Florida. Until now, authorities generally have taken a lax attitude toward caseworkers and other professionals who fail to protect youngsters under their supervision.
“Somebody is wanting to make an example of this case,” said Pam Graham, director of the undergraduate program at Florida State University’s College of Social Work, and a former member of the state’s Child Abuse Death Review Committee. “Somebody is wanting to send a message to those people who are in positions where they can make a difference, and they are going to be held accountable for the outcome.”
The indictments of Moye, Gerena and Richardson, Graham said, were “extremely unusual” especially the charges against the two mental health workers. “I’ve been in Florida all my professional life,” she added, noting that she has never seen a clinical professional charged with failing to report child abuse.
Linda Spears, who is vice president of policy and public affairs for the Child Welfare League of America, said the charges — whether or not they are sustained in court — will send shockwaves through the world of child protection. All professionals, Spears said, “are very clear about their duty to report. And it is an ethical violation, as well as a legal violation” to fail to do so.
She added: “People by and large take that responsibility really seriously, and they do their job. For an individual professional, charges like this can affect their life blood, and their ability to do their work. This is a serious blow. This is a very important thing for the profession to pay attention to.”
In addition to tuberous sclerosis, Tamiyah was severely autistic and had both physical and cognitive disabilities. Her entire life, she was unable to speak.
Tamiyah’s “death was likely caused by sepsis from her wounds and ulcers, the police affidavit said. “It is likely that she died from malnutrition and sepsis, as she had many open wounds and ulcers, and deep ulcers carry a high risk of introducing infection into the blood supply.”
In the final months of her life, Tamiyah essentially “wasted” away, police said. At the end of 2012, Tamiyah weighed 115 pounds, and was considered somewhat overweight. But over the next five months she withered away, weighing in at 108 pounds in March 2013, 101 pounds in April and 98 pounds in May of that year. Doctors did not see Tamiyah again after May, police say, and she weighed 56 pounds when her body was found the following September.
Tamiyah was among 477 Florida children whose stories were detailed in a Miami Herald series, Innocents Lost. Mostly infants and toddlers, the children died from abuse or neglect after state child welfare workers had investigated at least one prior report involving family members.
“I think what we are seeing is that people are tired of kids dying,” said James Sewell, a retired assistant commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement who had served on two task forces that investigated child deaths. “Kids don’t just die on their own; it requires an action that an adult took — or failed to take — and we need to hold those adults accountable.”
The grand jury, Sewell added, “may have been trying to send a clear message out.”