Why do children who've been beaten and abused and are known by DCF to be at risk continue to die in Florida?
That question must be asked again in light of the murder — no other word will do — of Ahizya Osceola. His three years on earth were filled with misery, pain, cruelty and vicious beatings, the last of which killed him. His battered body was found stuffed into garbage bags inside a small box behind a washer and dryer at his father’s Hollywood home.
In this instance, however, “home” is misnomer because it appears poor little Ahizya never really had one. That is, never had a place to live where his well-being was paramount. His biological mother — who screamed “He's my life” the day Ahizya went missing, but who hadn't seen him in three months — lost custody of the boy last December because of her alcohol problems.
It turns out Ahizya’s father, Nelson Osceola, and his girlfriend had substance abuse problems of their own. Their biggest problem, however, appears to have been Ahizya. Trying to explain away the child's many bumps and bruises, the father told child protective investigators from the Broward Sheriff’s Office (BSO) on at least two occasions that the boy was clumsy and prone to “falling.” Wrote Child Protective Investigator Judy Corley after a visit last December, “There is a concern anytime something happens to Ahizya, the father will say that he has fallen.”
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On that visit, investigators found Ahizya with bruises and abrasions on his discolored left cheek. When CPI Angelia Knight went to see Ahizya in April 2014, she wrote that he had “finger prints and a bruise to the lower side of each side of his jaw bone. He has scratches on both sides of his neck, a large bruise and bump on the right side of his forehead, a knot above his ear and in his hair and bruises on his left rib cage on his back.”
Doesn't sound like “falling,” does it? Sounds like the child was thrashed within an inch of his life. How could a trained child abuse investigator conclude otherwise? But when a doctor's exam couldn’t definitively prove Ahizya’s injuries were inflicted by an adult, the investigation was closed as “not substantiated.”
CPI investigators somehow concluded that Ahizya was in a safe environment and could remain with his father and “paramour,” as the CPI investigator quaintly referred to Analiz Osceola (the couple subsequently married). Similarly, they thought the child was in a safe environment in March 2014 when they saw Ahizya with “a scratch on his face, a burst lip, a pinch on his right ear lobe, red circular bruises on his ear, and a bruise on his back...” Nevertheless, the investigator wrote that “intervention services are not needed.”
Given the overwhelming evidence of repeated abuse you must wonder: What does it take for a child to be removed from a dangerous home? How badly must a child be hurt before the authorities responsible for protecting kids from abusive parents or caregivers take the child away? If ever there was a case that called for that, this was the one.
I’m sure everyone even tangentially involved in Ahizya’s short life and brutal death feels bad about it. And they should. However well-intentioned they were, they dropped the ball and a child is dead. To its credit, DCF properly took the child out of his biological mother's home last December because of her drinking problem. But they should have taken him out of his father’s home, too. Ahizya went from one calamity to another. All who had a hand in it bear some responsibility, starting with his father, mother and step-mother. Also, Seminole Family Services, DCF, ChildNet and the BSO, which handles child abuse and neglect investigations for DCF.
The governor and Legislature also bear some responsibility. They have allocated more money to DCF in the last few years, lowering the case load for child protective investigators. And yet Ahizya slipped through the cracks. The known facts now make the sad arc of his life look obvious in retrospect, but the 27-page Confidential Investigative Summary released to the media make it clear that this child was always in jeopardy. Why couldn't investigators see the ominous warning signs early on?
They didn’t and now we have to add Ahizya's name to a disturbingly long list of Florida kids who've been killed by violent parents or caregivers in recent years. The modern-day list began with Rilya Wilson and reached what we thought was its zenith with the ghastly death of Nubia Barahona. But the zenith now is Ahizya.
What will stop it? First, not trying to fix it on the cheap. That means not privatizing DCF’s essential services through private partners that cut corners. Citizens need to demand that the governor and Legislature quickly correct this child welfare crisis. FIU social work Prof. Paul Hunt says Maine had a similar child welfare crisis a decade ago and fixed it, thanks to a strong governor and legislature. In Florida, David Lawrence has made a huge difference in the lives of children, first through the Miami-Dade Children's Trust and now through the Children’s Movement of Florida.
Now, we need someone — the governor, a legislator, a mayor, a prominent citizen — to step forward and take charge of Florida's child welfare system.
The Legislature could start the process by changing Florida’s long-standing policy of keeping dysfunctional families together at any cost. The state has no talent for raising children, but even a mediocre foster home is preferable to one where a little boy is beaten to death. State policy and law must make family unification secondary to a child’s well-being. They could call it Ahizya's Law.