For several hours, Wildine Joseph allowed her two small sons to play outside unsupervised in her apartment complex, long after the sun had set. When she saw them next, they were floating, unresponsive, in the community pool.
Ja’kye Joseph, 6, and his brother, Branario Minto, 5, died on the evening of May 22 in North Lauderdale. A heavily redacted incident report from the Florida Department of Children & Families said the boys, unnoticed, likely climbed over a fence surrounding the pool, while their mother, grandmother and great-grandmother remained in their apartment for an undisclosed amount of time.
Between 2015 and 2018, Florida child abuse investigators had looked into six prior reports that the boys had been abused or neglected, including a final report within the past year that confirmed the boys had been mistreated. The call to DCF two days after the siblings’ death was the seventh.
Under state statutes, Floridians have a right to oversee DCF’s performance when a child — or, in this case, children — die from the abuse or neglect of a caregiver. But, nearly a month after the boys’ deaths, DCF has refused to release any such records.
In response to a request from the Miami Herald, DCF claims it is still investigating whether it constitutes neglect to allow a 5-year-old and a 6-year-old to remain outside unsupervised, in proximity to a pool, for what the agency called “several hours.”
At least one of the boys, Branario, had been in foster care before being returned to his mother. Mithilde Saintil, who identified herself as Branario’s foster mom, created a gofundme page to help Joseph bury the boys.
“My sweet Branario was our foster son,” Saintil wrote. “We were blessed to be in his life for a year and he was turned over to his Mom for reunification,” she wrote. “Questions are still going through my mind as to why [the brothers] were out so late. He was just a baby.”
“My heart dropped and my tears were uncontrollable,” Saintil wrote of the moment she saw news that the two boys had drowned. Saintil declined to speak with a reporter.
Joseph told television news reporters that she was sleeping when the boys left her apartment. “I wasn’t there to save them,” she told CBS4, “but they’re in a better place now. That’s all that matters. I will always miss my babies. I’m sorry, Ja’kye. I’m sorry, Branario. They were only 5 and 6. I lost my babies too early.”
Though DCF has insisted for weeks that it has yet to decide whether Joseph’s conduct constitutes neglect, the agency has taken a different position in court. DCF representatives told Broward Circuit Judge Kenneth Gillespie they are considering severing Joseph’s rights to raise two surviving children, an action that is taken only as a last resort.
“The department wants to give notice that we will be staffing this for a possible termination of parental rights,” a child welfare worker said at a recent hearing, according to CBS4.
Children’s advocates who spoke with the Herald were surprised that DCF was even considering a determination that the two youngsters’ deaths were just an accident, and not a clear-cut case of neglect.
“Reasonable people would probably conclude that two children, 5 and 6, left unsupervised for ‘hours’ outdoors and at night would constitute neglect, even if there wasn’t a pool,” said Sara B. Herald, a former regional vice president of the Children’s Home Society and and a former DCF interim district administrator. “There are any number of ways children of this age, unsupervised, could have been hurt.
“However, what is particularly disturbing is the number of previous calls identifying these children as in need of help. Why weren’t they protected? Transparency, in this situation, is critical, not for placing blame, but to find out what could have, and should have, been done differently so the deaths of these boys might have been prevented,” added Herald, a Miami attorney who also is a former chair of the Miami-Dade Children’s Services Council.
Transparency long has been a problem with Florida’s chronically troubled child welfare agency.
“DCF has been notoriously, notoriously difficult to get the slightest bit of information from,” said Barbara Petersen, who heads the First Amendment Foundation, a Tallahassee-based open-government advocate. “It is like pulling teeth. And these people are responsible for ensuring the safety and well-being of the most vulnerable in Florida, children.”
“They want to get their version of the facts out first, to the detriment of the children they are supposed to be protecting, to the detriment of the neighbors and everybody in Florida who needs to know that they’re doing their job. If you ever get the slightest hint that they are not, they close ranks. and you have to wait for answers.
“Common sense tells you that the agency that is responsible should be taking swift and effective action, and the agency that is responsible should be releasing information, and the agency that is responsible should be assuring us that it’s doing its job,” Petersen added. “Right now, we don’t have those assurances. We see a lot of hemming and hawing, and withholding of information.”
When the Herald published a series of stories in 2014 called Innocents Lost, describing how hundreds of children died after the state implemented a plan to save money by sheltering fewer children while spending less on children’s safety, the Legislature unanimously passed a law overhauling the state’s child protection system.
A hallmark of the new law was a demand for greater transparency from child welfare administrators, including the development of a child fatality data bank on DCF’s public website.
“It was the Legislature’s idea to send a clear message that we want transparency and accountability — that we want to find out about these innocent children,” then-state Sen. Eleanor Sobel, one of the legislation’s sponsors, said at the time. Sobel, a Hollywood Democrat, had chaired the chamber’s Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee.