Twice in the weeks before Tariji Gordon’s death, the child welfare worker sworn to protect her declared the toddler safe.
“The children appeared to be free of marks [or] bruises,” caseworker Jonathan Irizarry wrote following home visits he documented Jan. 23 and Feb. 6, the day the 2-year-old vanished. She was found dead five days later.
That statement was a lie, police now say. A cellphone photo taken by Tariji’s mother Jan. 19 showed the youngster’s eye swollen shut and her left arm in a sling. An autopsy documented a catalog of other sickening wounds in varying stages of healing: injuries to her back, cigarette burns on her hand, a bite mark on her shoulder and patches of hair torn from her scalp.
Had the caseworker “followed procedures” on the two reported visits, a sworn statement says, he would have observed the numerous injuries “and reported the abuse.” In turn, “ Tariji Gordon would have been removed prior to the abuse that resulted in her death, or had that abuse occurred, been given medical treatment that would have saved her life.”
The girl’s mother, Rachel Fryer, was charged with murder and aggravated child abuse, and remains in jail pending trial. An autopsy concluded Tariji died from blunt force trauma to her head.
On Friday, state police added charges against Irizarry, who worked for the Children’s Home Society of Florida: two felony counts of falsifying official child welfare records. He was booked in Seminole County, where bond was set at $10,000.
“These charges should serve to remind those responsible for protecting our children of how important that duty is,” State Attorney Phil Archer said in a prepared statement.
Irizarry’s attorney, Eric DuBois, said he is innocent.
“We stand 100 percent by his report. He followed the protocol and training he was given by his superiors for this case and all other cases,” DuBois said. “At the end of the day, we believe this is a way to make him a scapegoat for what Rachel Fryer did to her daughter.”
He said when Irizarry talked to police investigators, “they were trying to spin words and confuse him with details and dates. His story has not changed at all.”
The head of Irizarry’s agency, Shelly Katz, declined to discuss the 27-year-old’s arrest, saying the Children’s Home Society is still investigating Tariji’s death — and cooperating with police who are doing the same. CHS provides foster care and adoption services under contract with DCF.
“This child experienced horrific, horrific treatment that no child should have to endure,” said Katz, CHS’s chief executive officer. “Ultimately, we want to know the truth, just like everybody.”
Tariji’s battered body was found Feb. 11 in a shallow grave in Crescent City, about 50 miles from her mother’s Seminole County home. The little girl’s shoe was the only clue to what lay beneath the turned dirt. Tariji was featured in a Miami Herald series, Innocents Lost, that detailed the deaths of 477 Florida children whose families were known to the Department of Children & Families. During that time, more than two dozen children died after either they or a sibling were returned to a troubled home, the series reported.
The details of her short life shocked a state that had endured a grisly span in which dozens of Florida children from families on DCF’s radar died. Tariji’s twin brother, TaVont’ae, had preceded her in death. TaVont’ae, who had a heart condition, suffocated under his mother’s foot while sleeping with her on a couch. She was not charged.
After TaVont’ae’s death, Fryer’s surviving four children were placed in foster care. In October 2013, a judge agreed to return the siblings to Fryer, with the reunification set to occur the next month, records show. Irizarry was assigned to supervise the family going forward.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which investigated Irizarry’s handling of the case, said the caseworker falsified records pertaining to two visits he claims to have made in January and February during the weeks before her death.
Falsification charges were added to Florida’s criminal code around 2004 following another DCF scandal. DCF lost track of Rilya Wilson, a 4-year-old foster child, when her caseworker pretended for months to be looking in on the family, but never did. Rilya had been missing for about two years before DCF noticed she had vanished. She has never been found.
Rachel Fryer took about five cellphone photos of her daughter Jan. 19, the FDLE wrote. The pictures document some kind of injury to Tariji’s right eye, below her eyebrow, as well as a “defect” on Tariji’s right cheek.
The first of the two disputed visits occurred four days later, on Jan. 23. Irizarry later told police that he conducted a safety check of Fryer’s home that day, “looking for hazards, talking to the children, and looking for marks and bruises.”
But if Irizarry’s welfare visit had been thorough, he could not have helped but see the swollen eye and injured shoulder, the FDLE said. That’s because the same injuries were still visible a day after the purported visit on Jan. 24, when Fryer, once again, took photographs of her injured toddler, an arrest report noted.
Irizarry told police investigators he conducted another home visit Feb. 6 around 7 a.m. He said he sat on a futon and discussed the case plan with Fryer and observed all four children in the home. He said he “physically checked all the children” looking at their “legs, arms and faces and did not see any marks or injuries.”
But the details of that visit are in dispute, as well. Tariji vanished that same day. And when her body was discovered on Feb. 11, medical examiners documented cigarette burns that were “not fresh,” and patches of hair that appeared to have been ripped from Tariji’s head. “The hair loss,” the medical examiner wrote, “was a result of the forceful pulling of her hair.”
Gretl Plessinger, an FDLE spokeswoman, said agents do not know whether Irizarry made the reported visits but failed to carefully observe Fryer’s children, or did not visit at all. “We know that what is documented is not accurate, is not factual,” Plessinger said. “Whether there were visits or not is part of the investigation.”
Chief Medical Examiner Predrag Bulic said Tariji might still have survived the injuries that took her life had she been given medical care within two or three hours of her assault.