Broward County

BSO could have intervened to protect this abused baby. It didn’t. She died violently

Makenzie Nevaraz died from a fatal head injury at 6 months old. Juan Santos was charged with aggravated child abuse and murder in her death.
Makenzie Nevaraz died from a fatal head injury at 6 months old. Juan Santos was charged with aggravated child abuse and murder in her death. Courtesy of Stacie Schmerling

Eleven days. That is how much time the Broward Sheriff’s Office had to save Makenzie Nevarez’s life.

The clock commenced on Oct. 13, 2016, when BSO’s child protection unit was told that Makenzie, then all of 6 months old, had been hospitalized with three unexplained fractures to the shin and calf of her left leg and her left forearm, as well as a black eye and bruised wrist.

Investigators, summoned to the hospital, could have conducted a thorough investigation. They could have had doctors specializing in child abuse examine the baby. They could have looked deeper into the background of her mother’s live-in boyfriend, who was once charged with aggravated battery and strangulation. They could have sought to place the child with a responsible relative.

They did none of those things.

Instead they made the girl’s mother sign a safety plan — a promise to protect her from harm.

The clock ran out for Makenzie on Oct. 24 — 11 days after the hospital visit — when the infant was placed on life support with an inventory of injuries so numerous it took 10 lines of print to list them all. The fatal blows came to Makenzie’s head, probably from a “violent shaking,” an autopsy concluded. She was pronounced dead four days later.

The live-in boyfriend is charged with murder.

In 2014, a Miami Herald investigation, Innocents Lost, described how 477 Florida children had died of abuse and neglect after their families had prior contact with the state’s child welfare system — contact like that triggered by the Oct. 13 trip to the hospital by Makenzie. In the wake of that Herald investigation, the state vowed to move away from so-called “promissory note” safety plans, those that make a caretaker promise to do better but set up no system of oversight for ensuring they comply.

A 2015 reform law passed in the wake of Innocents Lost requires the Department of Children & Families to perform an investigation into Makenzie’s death, and to make it available online. That would include an examination of the role of BSO, which handles child abuse investigations in Broward under a contract with DCF.

But DCF’s “summary” of BSO’s performance comprises less than three full pages, contains unexplained redactions and offers merely a timeline, with no analysis or critical thinking.

“Transparency means making as much information as possible available to the public, not as little as possible,” said retired state Sen. Eleanor Sobel, a Hollywood Democrat who sponsored the Senate bill requiring greater openness. “I was thinking we can learn from our past mistakes and avoid them in the future. But you cannot do that if you do not know what’s going on.”

Juan Santos was charged with aggravated child abuse and murder in the death of 6-month-old Makenzie Nevaraz.

Juan Santos, who was the live-in boyfriend of Makenzie’s mother, Keshia Walsh, is awaiting trial before Circuit Judge Martin Fine. Santos, 28, faces the death penalty if he is convicted.

BSO’s role in the tragedy would have remained obscured but for a lawsuit that was filed last week by Makenzie’s estate. The Miami Herald asked BSO for records that might shed light on its handling of the youngster’s child protection investigation, but the agency declined, saying the records belong to DCF.

BSO also declined to discuss Makenzie’s death with a reporter. DCF said it will release the records but issued only a short statement when asked about whether there was a lack of depth in its review of Makenzie’s killing.

A DCF spokesman said the agency had “no interactions with this family” prior to Makenzie’s death — which is accurate as far as it goes, since the interaction involved its surrogate, BSO.

“DCF takes every child death seriously,” said David Frady. He added: “DCF is the leading authority on reviewing its processes and making improvements to systems to continually enhance services provided to Florida’s most vulnerable.”

The lawsuit was filed by Broward lawyer Stacie Schmerling, who previously worked for almost four years as a BSO child abuse investigator and supervisor before going to law school.

“As a result of their failures, a 6-month-old child died on their watch,” Schmerling said of her former employers. “And this was a preventable death.”

She added: “I just don’t know how this didn’t raise flags up the chain of command. Another innocent child did not have to lose her life.”

With dark eyes and a button nose, Makenzie often wore bows on her wispy hair, and was dressed in pink and frilly outfits in family photos. Her father described her as a “miracle” baby because she was unexpected, and said she rewarded him with love and affection, Schmerling said.

One of the family photos now seems eerie and prophetic: Beneath a pink bow nearly as large as her face, Makenzie has a noticeable black eye.

The first hint of trouble came at 5:35 p.m. on Oct. 13, 2016. Makenzie was at the hospital with a fever, the report said. X-rays showed she had three unexplained broken bones.

The DCF child abuse hotline — which hospitals must call when there are troubling, unexplained injuries to a child — accepted the report for investigation at 6:06 p.m. that day. By policy, BSO should have received the report within 30 minutes or so and commenced an investigation.

Though BSO knew that Walsh could not explain Makenzie’s “multiple fractures,” and offered only an “implausible explanation” for the youngster’s black eye, the department allowed Makenzie “to be released to the custody of her mother, when the perpetrator of [her] multiple injuries had not been identified and [her] safety could not be ensured,” the lawsuit said.

BSO did not interview Walsh’s boyfriend, Santos, “even though he lived in the home, to find out if he was a caregiver for the children,” the suit says. BSO never interviewed Makenzie’s father, or others who knew the children, to determine whether they were aware of any problems.

Instead, BSO asked Walsh to sign the “safety plan” in which she promised not to leave the infant alone on a bed or couch, or to leave the child with a babysitter, an individual she said might have been the abuser. And she pledged to enroll Makenzie in a licensed daycare center and alert investigators to all new caregivers.

It is precisely that type of safety plan that lawmakers discouraged in their 2015 reform law.

The law required that safety plans be “specific, sufficient, feasible and sustainable,” and that investigators not sign such agreements without adequate services to mitigate the risk to a child’s safety.

Walsh’s safety plan did none of that: BSO failed to confirm that Makenzie was attending daycare, and “failed to inquire who was caring” for Makenzie while her mom was at work, the lawsuit says.

“That kind of safety plan was retired,” Sobel said, “or it should have been.”

Most critically, BSO never ensured that Makenzie was examined by the Child Protection Team, a group of doctors and other professionals who specialize in identifying child abuse. Due to a glitch in paperwork, the CPT merely agreed to review the baby’s records.

“BSO took no further action in this case until Oct. 24, 2016, and instead left [Makenzie and her older brother] in a home where they were subjected to ongoing chronic abuse,” the suit alleges.

The day of the fatal incident, Walsh called up her friend, Jessica Ortiz, and said she didn’t really want to leave the kids with Santos, Ortiz said in a sworn statement.

Ortiz said she didn’t think much of the comment in the moment, but, looking back, “Well, now, yeah, now it raises red flags.”

“She just felt like she didn’t want to leave them. She said that she just felt like something was wrong,” Ortiz said.

Walsh was eating an early dinner with Ortiz when she got a text from Santos: “Your daughter isn’t breathing.” He then told her, “the baby is not breathing, she is like dead weight and you need to call 911.”

Ortiz said Walsh started crying hysterically as they drove to the hospital.

By the time investigators were called to examine Makenzie, it was too late.

When the CPT finally wrote a report, it said Makenzie had “sustained a fatal brain injury,” likely from being shaken by Walsh’s boyfriend, Santos, after Walsh went to work and left her baby in Santos’ care. Santos was arrested by BSO on April 26, 2017.

Santos’ arrest report shows that he changed his version of events. Initially, he told police that he had gone to lie down with her, after which she gasped for air. He said she had been playing with his beard for about five to 10 minutes before spitting up a white liquid substance consistent with baby formula and going limp. He told detectives he was “scared shitless” every time he blew into her mouth and heard gurgling.

But after further questioning he said he was holding the infant in his right arm when he accidentally struck her head against the wooden bed post.

Santos is being held without bail. In 2009, he had been charged with aggravated battery and strangulation — charges that later were dropped.

In the arrest report, Chris Nevarez, the baby’s father, said his relationship with Walsh had been difficult at times. On several occasions, police were called to their Coconut Creek home for domestic disturbances but none of those incidents involved their children.

Following Makenzie’s death, Walsh has mourned the infant openly, posting memes like “Dear Santa, All I want for Christmas is to hold my angel in heaven” on her Facebook page.

In March 2017, she wrote, simply: “When will the pain end?”

Around the time Makenzie died, Walsh created a GoFundMe page, called Justice for Makenzie. “We are adamantly working with the detectives to find out the truth of what had happened to her,” Walsh wrote. She raised $2,534 from 39 donations.

Walsh’s older child, identified only as “D.M.,” also had been abused, the lawsuit claims. The day Makenzie was hospitalized with a head injury, the state health department’s Child Protection Team examined the then-4-year-old brother. Doctors wrote he had a bruise to his left eye, “which he reported was inflicted when his mother hit him with a belt,” the lawsuit says. Walsh was never charged criminally in the incident.

A judge later ordered that Walsh lose her right to raise the older boy.