Last December, when a Broward County child welfare investigator visited the Hollywood home where Ahziya Osceola lived with his father — who had been the subject of two recent child abuse allegations — the 3-year-old’s stepmother was viewed as a source of stability, someone who brought “structure” to his chaotic life.
Stepmom Analiz Osceola’s parental report card would prove to be far more complicated.
Ahziya’s 24-year-old stepmother had been under the scrutiny of child protection investigators herself since April 2012, when her own son had been found sleeping on a mattress on the dirty floor of a one-room drug house teeming with cockroaches. As many as 15 other adults were there, too, police said, abusing narcotics. Five months later, the 2-year-old was found wandering alone several blocks from his home. It took his mother almost three hours to report him missing.
Analiz Osceola was charged last month with aggravated manslaughter after police found Ahziya’s 30-pound body stuffed inside two garbage bags in his parents’ laundry room. Hollywood police say the boy was covered “head to toe” with bruises, had suffered a lacerated liver and ruptured pancreas, and had a healing spiral fracture to his foot — a kind of injury that is often associated with child abuse.
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The collection of caregivers in the months before Ahziya’s death might have raised some eyebrows. Nelson Osceola had been the subject of two reports of physical abuse, and had a lengthy criminal history; the boy’s stepmom had undergone two neglect investigations. Also in the home at the time Ahziya died was Analiz Osceola’s mother, Anubis Rodezno, who had twice been accused of child abuse. Analiz’s two brothers — described in a court pleading as having “extensive” drug histories — also had moved in, and one had amassed a lengthy rap sheet, with arrests for battery, aggravated assault and weapons possession.
In his sadly abridged life, Ahziya had appeared in the subject line of four abuse or neglect reports, 127 pages of caseworker chronological notes, another 58 pages of child protection narratives and one police report. No one who signed any of the records seemed to comprehend where all the bread crumbs were leading.
The final document was the boy’s autopsy.
“It is alarming to think that someone would allow this child to stay in that household,” Hollywood Police Chief Frank Fernandez told the Miami Herald. “We know today that should have never happened. That child should have been removed.”
Fernandez viewed autopsy photos of Ahziya’s pockmarked body. He’d been crammed inside an eight-inch-wide cardboard box. The makeshift coffin once had held a toddler’s walker, he said. “The condition in which we found this little boy was absolutely horrific,” Fernandez said. “My first thought was anger, that any child would be put through that torture, discarded like a piece of trash.”
An attorney for Nelson Osceola, who was released on $50,000 bail after being charged with child neglect, declined to discuss Ahziya’s death. Analiz Osceola’s attorney could not be reached by a reporter.
Central to any understanding of Ahziya’s death is the unusual patchwork structure of child welfare work in Broward. Child abuse investigations are performed by the Broward Sheriff’s Office, under contract with the Department of Children & Families. Supervision of struggling families, or children in foster care, is overseen by the privately run ChildNet, which also contracts with DCF. The state attorney general’s office represents DCF in court. And the Seminole Tribe has significant authority over children who are members, as was Ahziya.
A spokeswoman for BSO, which had long been involved with Ahziya’s family, declined to discuss the boy with the Herald, citing the Hollywood Police Department’s open investigation of his killing. “Our two cases were handled appropriately and are now closed,” spokeswoman Gina Carter said of BSO child abuse probes in April and December of 2014.
Emilio Benitez, who is the CEO of ChildNet, acknowledged “flaws in the current system, particularly when we have multiple agencies and two nations involved.” He said ChildNet “has been working swiftly and diligently to identify those flaws, and to put measures in place to prevent them from being repeated.”
At a hearing before the state Senate’s Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee, DCF Secretary Mike Carroll acknowledged that investigators or caseworkers may have erred by allowing Ahziya to remain in his father’s house despite mounting evidence that something was wrong. “There were signs that this child may have been being physically abused — it wasn't clear [by] who or to what extent,” Carroll told lawmakers.
“We just didn't close the loop and get to a place where we were able to determine ... the nature of these bruises and who” was responsible for them.
Carroll also suggested that federal laws limiting the state’s power to interfere in the lives of Native American families also may have played a role in Ahziya’s death. The toddler did not live on the Hollywood reservation, but he was subject to the tribe’s authority in matters of child welfare.
“While I appreciate the need to respect the sovereignty of the Indian nation in these cases, the best interests, well-being and safety of the children should be of the foremost concern of both parties involved,” Carroll told lawmakers.
Documents obtained by the Herald — including records from DCF, BSO, ChildNet and the attorney general’s office — show that a platoon of social welfare workers were involved with Ahziya’s family, and some of them visited regularly. But records suggest the knowledge they generated was seldom shared, leaving decision-makers with an incomplete picture.
ChildNet, for example, knew as early as July 2014 that Nelson Osceola had married the former Analiz Rodezno, who was giving birth to his baby. Records obtained from DCF show that investigators were aware the couple were living together by at least the following December. Yet there is no record that either agency considered Analiz’s history with her own son to determine whether she was an appropriate caregiver for Ahziya.
Acting on the wishes of the tribe, a Broward judge gave custody of then 3-year-old Ahziya to his father around February 2014, after the child was found wandering unsupervised in a hotel lobby while his mother, 25-year-old Karen Cypress, was passed out drunk in a room upstairs.
Nelson Osceola’s rap sheet contained nine arrests, including charges of weapons possession on a school property, marijuana possession, aggravated assault with a weapon, burglary, fleeing police and battery. A court pleading cites “numerous” other reports from the Seminole police. The most recent case, the battery, remained pending during much of the time Nelson Osceola had custody of his son.
“There were red flags even before they put him in that house,” said the boy’s maternal grandfather, Kenneth Tommie. “If they did their job he wouldn't have been in that house.”
The Jan. 19, 2013, battery arrest was one of the warning signs. Nelson and Analiz Osceola were behind at least two other cars in a Dunkin Donuts drive-through lane. Analiz, using her original surname, Rodezno, began honking her horn at a black Infiniti in front of her. The Infiniti’s driver said that he was stuck behind other cars, which enraged a then-screaming Nelson Osceola. He walked over to the Infiniti. The Infiniti’s driver poked his head out of his window and yelled “let’s just get our food and go on our ways,” a Davie police report said.
Nelson Osceola responded by punching the man in the face, a report said. The battery charge was not disposed of until July 2014, when Osceola pleaded no contest and was placed on six-months of probation.
Analiz Osceola’s dealings with law enforcement and child welfare workers also were unsettling. Police first came in contact with her on April 6, 2012, when a patrolman was sent to investigate drug sales at an apartment building on Dewey Street. Inside, the beige home with awnings had all the earmarks of a drug house: As many as 15 adults were crashing in the one-room apartment.
Empty beer bottles littered the floor, a Hollywood police report said. “There were also other objects on the floor, such as a car battery, sharp knives, and two individuals who appeared to be ‘passed out,’” the report said. Cockroaches skittered across the floor, which was covered by at least three mattresses. Sleeping soundly on one of the mattresses was a 2-year-old boy, Analiz’s son.
“Every person inside the apartment and outside on the balcony had extensive narcotics-related criminal histories, and three of the subjects are currently on probation for narcotics-related offenses,” the officer wrote. Though Analiz was not arrested, DCF’s abuse hotline was called, and BSO verified allegations of child neglect. Analiz was offered parenting services; she declined.
Hollywood police saw the toddler again on Sept. 10, 2012, when he wandered several blocks from his home — right to the campus of Hollywood Park Elementary School, where administrators fetched him. According to a report, Analiz did not report him missing for about three hours. Records show the little boy had been diagnosed with autism, which is often associated with dangerous wandering. That report, too, was verified for child neglect, and, this time, DCF asked a judge to order Analiz to be supervised and visited by case managers, a request that was granted.
Less than two months after he was awarded custody of Ahziya, Nelson Osceola came back on DCF’s radar. Ahziya had been living with his father since the end of February 2014. On April 21 of that year, DCF’s hotline was told that the boy had “multiple bruises on his body,” along with fingertip-shaped bruises on his face. The Child Protection Team, which evaluates children for evidence of abuse, decided most of the bruises were inconclusive.
The fingertip marks, though, were called “positive for physical abuse” — meaning medical experts believed someone had deliberately inflicted them.
Workers at the boy’s preschool, Nob Hill Academy, strongly suspected abuse as well. They told investigators Ahziya had been “observed with several bruises on a weekly basis.” That day, he had “multiple bruises.” He told his teacher that his father had beaten him with a belt.
BSO concluded he was safe. The investigation was not verified as abuse.
Still, BSO asked Nelson Osceola to sign a “safety plan,” in which he promised to “refrain from all illegal activity,” to “ensure that there are no illicit drugs in the home,” to “ensure [Ahziya lived] in a safe and stable home” and to ensure the boy was “supervised at all times by a caregiver that has been previously approved by DCF.” Caseworkers with ChildNet and the Seminole Tribe were to oversee Nelson Osceola’s compliance with the plan.
ChildNet knew by July that at least one of the plan’s provisions had been broken. Notes from a July 31 visit to Osceola’s home quote Nelson Osceola as saying that “his new wife is giving birth today and [he] needed to leave soon.” Analiz Osceola was not an approved caregiver. The notation appears to be the first time her name is mentioned. Nevertheless, ChildNet initiated efforts to terminate their supervision of Ahziya, which was approved by a judge the following September.
It is unclear when Anubis Rodezno moved in with her daughter at the home she shared with Nelson Osceola on Johnson Street. Fernandez, the Hollywood police chief, told the Herald that Charles and Anthony Rodezno, Analiz’s older brothers, arrived around August 2014, though the two remained largely “transient” during the past several months.
Charles’ rap sheet begins in November 2006 with a battery charge. The 25-year-old’s 14 other arrests include burglary, disorderly conduct, aggravated assault with a weapon, marijuana possession, carrying a concealed weapon, and aggravated assault on an officer.
Records suggest that the Sheriff’s Office was not aware of Analiz until December, when Ahziya’s birth mom picked him up for a visit and found him bruised again. He had one bruise on the side of his cheek, which was healing, and he said his bottom was sore. When asked, Ahziya said that his “mommy” had hurt his bottom, referring to his stepmother, Analiz Osceola.
The report said: “There is concern Ahziya is being abused at the father’s house.” It added: “The father always states the child has fallen when he has injuries.”
When interviewed, the boy’s paternal grandmother praised Analiz as “very structured when it comes to food and rules in the home, but she is not abusive.” Nelson Osceola said that his wife provided “a balanced structure in the home.” And Analiz said that she had “been in the child’s life for over two years” — though the investigation appeared to be the first time investigators had seen her.
That case, too, was closed without BSO taking action to protect the boy. “There is no evidence of intentional abuse, no reports of abuse [made] by the child,” a risk assessment concluded — despite Ahziya’s disclosures in April that his father had hit him with a belt, as well as the toddler’s more recent disclosure that his stepmother had hurt “his butt.”
“He did not state how the paramour [Analiz Osceola] hurt him, but stated that she does hit him,” a Feb. 4, 2015, risk assessment said of the investigation that began that December.
For the second time, investigators accepted the Osceola family’s claim that the boy was clumsy, fell often, and may have had an undiagnosed disorder that exacerbated the bruising.
Narratives from ChildNet home visits do not portray a clumsy child. An Aug. 25, 2014, notation, a month before ChildNet ceased supervising the family, described the child this way: “Climbs well. Kicks ball. Runs easily. Pedals a tricycle. Bends over easily without falling.”
Kenneth Tommie told the Herald that Ahziya, his grandson, was an active, happy toddler when he was not in the care of his father. “Clumsy,” he said, was not a word he would have used to describe the boy.
“He was scared to go home” to his father, the maternal grandfather said of Ahziya. “He was scared to leave his mom.”