In the months before toddler Jonathan Feliciano drowned in the above-ground backyard pool of a West Miami-Dade home daycare center, a state inspector approved the fence surrounding the water on three separate occasions.
But inspector Sam Fateru, a 25-year employee of the Florida Department of Children and Families, admitted to police detectives that he never measured the fence, its gate or the gaps in between the wooden slats to ensure they would keep children away from the water.
Did he believe the fence was safe simply because it had been outfitted with a padlock, Miami-Dade Detective Jonathan Grossman asked Fateru in a newly released sworn statement.
“Yes,” Fateru replied. “I believed the pool was safe at that point.”
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In fact, a newly released police report reveals, the fence and the gate were only three feet high — one foot short of the minimum. More importantly, under state codes, the gate was not supposed to have “gaps or openings that would allow a young child to “crawl under” or “squeeze though.”
But detectives provided the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner’s Office with the fence gate from the wooden deck area, which was used to conduct a re-enactment showing the boy could easily squeeze through a gap of about seven inches between the slats.
The police report and Fateru’s sworn statement were released last week as part of the criminal case against Zobeida Gonzalez, 63, worked at the Mayling Brache Family Day Care. She is charged with aggravated manslaughter and child neglect with great harm.
The department has consistently defended Fateru, saying he inspected the gate in accordance with the law. A DCF spokeswoman, Ana Valdes, on Friday noted that law “does not provide a specific distance between slats of a fence or barrier.”
DCF’s internal investigation into the incident was halted because the child died on a Sunday, when the daycare was not licensed to operate.
The DCF codes also state “any ladder or steps that are the means of access to an above-ground pool must be removed at all times while children are in care and when the pool is not being used by the children in care.”
But the pool stairs are fixed and cannot be removed — something never noted by the DCF inspectors.
According to Miami-Dade police, the daycare operators had never obtained the proper permit from the county for the pool. The owners also told the insurance company that there was no pool.
The revelations about the pool case come at a sensitive time for DCF, which regulates daycares across the state. Last month, the Herald published a series of stories, called Innocents Lost, detailing the deaths by neglect or abuse of 477 children whose families had been scrutinized by the child welfare agency.
Scott Egleston, Gonzalez’s lawyer, has long insisted that the family believed the fence and gate was in compliance because inspectors had told them so, four times. He pointed out, the daycare added the padlock at the behest of another inspector during the pool’s first inspection in March 2012.
Fateru’s acknowledgment that he never considered the gaps in the fence gate “speaks volumes about the Department of Children and Families’ lack of supervision,” Egleston said.
Jonathan’s bereaved parents have called for DCF to ban pools from home daycares. “Their incompetence cost my son his life,” father Yunior Feliciano told El Nuevo Herald/Miami Herald in March.
Prosecutors say Gonzalez left Jonathan unattended and he climbed the stairs leading to the fence and gate surrounding the raised above-ground pool and deck. He slipped through the fence gate, jumped into the pool and drowned. Gonzalez runs the home daycare along with her daughter, Malying Brache, and her husband, Nivaldo Brache.
That morning, the child’s parents left him in the care of Gonzalez, Mayling’s mother, who helps run the facility.
Gonzalez initially told investigators that she left the boy alone for “only a minute or two” in an outside play area as she went inside to turn off an air conditioning unit. But surveillance video from a neighbor’s yard showed that the baby was actually unattended for at least 29 minutes, according to an arrest warrant.
The footage showed the toddler playing on the stairs of the above-ground pool for more than six minutes before jumping into the water. The boy was in the water for nearly 23 minutes before Gonzalez’s daughter pulled him out of the pool and tried to resuscitate him.
Her lawyer says the video is misleading because it does not show that Gonzalez had been frantically looking for the child inside and around the house for some time before they finally realized the child had squeezed through the pool fence.
“Ms. Gonzalez is ruined over the death of the baby. She loved him like a grandson,” Egleston said.