As the bumps, bruises, fingerprints, scratches and abrasions accumulated on Ahziya Osceola’s 30-pound body, the state workers whose job it was to protect him paid little heed, failing to identify and stanch “a pattern of repeat injuries” that ultimately led to the Broward County boy’s death, a report said Wednesday.
Twice during the final months of Ahziya’s short life, experts at identifying child abuse concluded that someone was deliberately injuring the Seminole Indian child. Both times, abuse investigators with the Broward Sheriff’s Office failed to act upon the findings, leaving Ahziya unprotected with his abusers, the Department of Children & Families reported Wednesday.
“There was a generalized failure to first recognize, then fully assess, an emerging and worsening pattern of insufficiently explained physical injuries to Ahziya,” the DCF Critical Incident Rapid Response Team wrote in a 19-page report released by the agency Wednesday.
Three-year-old Ahziya was found dead — wrapped inside two garbage bags and stuffed in a carboard box — in the laundry room of his father’s Hollywood home on March 19. Hours earlier, the boy’s stepmother had told police the boy was missing, setting off a frantic, though ultimately futile, neighborhood search.
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Stepmother Analiz Osceola was charged with aggravated manslaughter and lying to police. She will likely remain in jail after a Broward Circuit judge denied her attorney’s request Wednesday morning that her $210,000 bond be significantly reduced.
A search warrant of the Osceola Hollywood home at 5420 Johnson St., dated April 15, quoted Analiz’s 5-year-old son as saying his mom used a stick to beat Ahziya. Police retrieved three sticks as evidence.
Osceola, who is eight to 10 weeks pregnant, sat in the courtroom Wednesday morning with her head held low as her attorney asked a judge to release her. Attorney Sean Coccia said her bond is “tantamount to no bond” because she has “limited income.” He also said she had a high-risk pregnancy because of a previous miscarriage.
But a prosecutor called Analiz Osceola’s conduct “egregious,” arguing the woman should remain incarcerated. “She lay him face down in the bed to die,” Assistant State Attorney Neva Rainford-Smith told Broward Circuit Judge Michael Robinson.
The first of four abuse or neglect reports on Ahziya was sent to the state in August 2013. It alleged that the then-2-year-old’s mother was too drunk to care for her children. A day later, another report arrived saying Ahziya would return from visits with his father, Nelson Osceola, with “unexplained bruises and smelling like marijuana.” Nelson Osceola’s explanation for the bruise on his son’s cheek would be repeated often during the next year: Ahziya fell.
The investigation was closed without action by the Sheriff’s Office, which conducts child abuse probes in Broward under contract with DCF.
Three additional investigations would follow. In January 2014, Ahziya was removed from his mother’s care after he was found wandering a hotel lobby alone while his mother was passed out in a room upstairs. Because Nelson Osceola had never been declared an unfit parent, he was given custody of the boy by a Broward judge, who was acting upon the Seminole Tribe’s recommendation. Under federal law, the tribe exercises significant authority over where tribal members live in child custody cases.
DCF’s abuse hotline received two additional reports, in April and December of 2014. Both complaints alleged physical abuse, and the first appears to be linked to the boy’s preschool, where he arrived “with multiple bruises on his body, including what appeared to be fingerprints and a bruise on the lower portion of each side of his jaw line,” Wednesday’s report said. “He was additionally alleged to have scratches on both sides of his neck, a large bruise and bump on the right side of his forehead, a knot above one ear and bruises over his left rib cage on his back.”
The Child Protection Team, which evaluates children for signs of abuse, found the facial injuries consistent with child abuse, though BSO investigators closed the case without verifying the abuse or taking action to protect the child.
BSO did not act again the following December when the CPT found signs of child abuse after Ahziya was taken to the emergency room with bruising to his face and “abrasions or tears” to his bottom. “Mommy hurt my butt,” the boy told authorities.
The Rapid Response Team report said investigators and caseworkers who were involved with Ahziya repeatedly failed to connect the dots as evidence of abuse mounted.
“Of significant concern was the failure to adequately assess the origin of, and person responsible for, the multiple injuries that were medically determined to have been inflicted, and which were mostly about the face, head and neck area of such a young child,” the report said.
Nelson Osceola, the report said, “always provided a similar explanation of simple falls or accidents” for the escalating injuries. But the injuries should have raised red flags: active toddlers often scrape their knees and elbows during play, the report said, but frequent head injuries, especially when they draw the same explanation, “should be viewed with additional scrutiny.” This did not occur.
Again and again, the report said, investigators relied upon the word of Ahziya’s caregivers when he was injured, even when their word conflicted with the accounts of others, less-interested parties, such as the boy’s teachers. Other independent sources, such as guests at an Easter party where Nelson Osceola claimed his son was hurt, were not contacted.
Caseworkers with a privately run child welfare agency, ChildNet, might have provided additional insight into the family, but they, too, failed to do their job well, the report said. ChildNet caseworkers visited Ahyzia 10 times while they supervised the boy’s family, but the reports that were generated appeared to be drive-by inspections, the report said.
What’s more, ChildNet failed to provide any services to Nelson Osceola’s family — such as parenting classes or an evaluation of Ahziya’s developmental gains — other than the monthly visits, the report said.
The various groups that worked with the family failed to speak with each other, making it difficult for investigators or caregivers to draw the necessary conclusions, the report said. A written Child Protection Team report following Ahyzia’s December injuries was not even provided to BSO until after the department had closed its investigation, taking no action. The CPT investigation had remained “open,” even as BSO’s had been closed.
And the tribe, the report said, seemed more concerned with the “needs” of Ahziya’s parents than with the little boy’s safety.
“While it’s apparent that permanency for Ahziya was achieved with Mr. Osceola,” the report said, “it is not apparent that Ahziya’s needs for safety and well-being were ensured as well.”