Miami-Dade County

2 weeks before his death, DCF said tot on boat was safe

Two weeks before 17-month-old Yadriel Alba’s small body was found floating near his parents’ boat, state child welfare administrators dismissed a report that the toddler was living with a “dangerous” father aboard a “vessel that is not in livable condition” in the middle of Biscayne Bay.

The report to the Department of Children & Families’ child welfare hotline appears to have been made on Aug. 19 by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which is a law enforcement arm of the state. “The conditions are disgusting and horrific,” the report said. “There is no type of sanitation device. … They are essentially homeless and living full time on the boat.”

Child welfare investigators looked into the report for nearly seven weeks before concluding that Yadriel was not at risk. “The mother and father were very cooperative,” a report said. “Both stated everything was going well with them and [Yadriel].”

On the afternoon of Oct. 23, Yadriel’s father, Oscar Estable-Martinez, left the toddler asleep with his mother to go grocery shopping at a food mart on Michigan Avenue. When he returned an hour or so later, Yadriel’s mother was still asleep, and Yadriel had vanished. Miami Beach police officers later found the toddler floating “unconscious, not breathing and with a pale blue discoloration,” a police report said.

“We were worried about this child’s situation,” said Fish and Wildlife officer Lorenzo Veloz, a spokesman. “We were worried about the possibilities, and one of those possibilities came true, unfortunately.”

Responding to a public records request from the Miami Herald and other media outlets, DCF administrators on Friday afternoon released reports detailing the agency’s short history with Yadriel and his parents.

In a brief statement, an agency spokeswoman wrote: “The death of Yadriel Alba is heartbreaking. The department conducted a comprehensive investigation in August after a report was called in to the Florida Abuse Hotline. The investigation included an inspection of the boat and interviews with family members and [others]. The allegations of environmental hazards to the child were not supported.”

However, the report raises questions, including why the agency would leave a toddler — who, records show, was able to walk and run — aboard a boat in Biscayne Bay.

We were worried about this child’s situation. We were worried about the possibilities, and one of those possibilities came true, unfortunately.

Lorenzo Veloz, Fish and Wildlife officer

DCF Secretary Mike Carroll, in an interview with the Herald on Friday evening, said that at the time when investigators closed their case on Oct. 9, they believed Yadriel was spending most of his time living in a house with his mother and maternal grandmother. Because his father, Estable-Martinez, was unwilling to leave the boat, investigators also knew the little boy was spending a good deal of time, including overnights, on the boat, as well.

Shortly after DCF closed its investigation, the agency learned Yadriel’s grandmother had left Florida, and his mother had moved full-time onto the boat, Carroll said.

It is not illegal, Carroll said, to keep small children aboard boats. But, he added, “the child was sleeping on a boat. Once we understood that he was sleeping on a boat, we should have done more to assure there were adequate safety precautions in place.”

A sailboat, Carroll added, “is a very inherently unsafe place for kids to be.”

Yadriel’s death came amid a small cluster of fatalities that garnered significant attention, including that of state lawmakers, who passed a far-reaching overhaul of the state’s child welfare system last year. Carroll said that a year after the reform legislation was passed, Florida’s performance is improving — though not fast enough.

“I feel frustrated that we have not made progress as quickly as I would like,” Carroll said. “I do think the reforms are taking root.”

He added: “We have made some progress. But we have a ways to go, and it’s frustrating.”

The report on Yadriel from state Fish and Wildlife officers did not explicitly mention concerns that Yadriel was at risk of drowning. Accepted by DCF as a report of “hazardous conditions” aboard the sailboat, the allegations were that “the whole deck of the boat is covered in trash. … There is trash everywhere, tires, engine parts, etc. The whole deck of the boat is covered in trash.”

“The baby was pretty dirty and the clothes were dirty as well,” it added.

Records showed that neither Alba nor Estable-Martinez had a prior history with DCF, but one notation said “the father has an extensive criminal history.” A Fish and Wildlife officer said the father was “considered dangerous.” The wildlife commission’s report to DCF said Estable-Martinez “stated that the next time someone came out to his boat he would shoot them. He appears to be a little crazy and gets very agitated.”

When an investigator visited the boat a day later, he did not describe a vessel in poor shape, observing “a full-sized kitchen, food, sink, shower, toilet, clothes for [Yadriel] and beds … aboard the boat. The water, lights and air conditioner were on at the time of the visit.” The boat had been anchored near Star Island, and Estable-Martinez said it was his “primary place of residence.”

Photos taken a week later also don’t show a boat that looked “disgusting.”

I feel frustrated that we have not made progress as quickly as I would like. I do think the reforms are taking root.

Mike Carroll, DCF secretary

Chronological notes detailing the state’s contact with the family, however, suggest investigators gave short shrift to any concerns over whether a mobile toddler could be safe on a sailboat surrounded by water. When an investigator first saw Yadriel, the boy was wearing a pair of blue jeans and a colorful cotton shirt. He bore no signs of abuse or neglect, such as bruising. Yadriel could use some words, and he waved his hand at the DCF investigator.

The investigator “observed [Yadriel] walking and running through the home, playing with his toys and his older sibling,” a report said.

Estable-Martinez told an investigator the toddler “does not crawl or walk on the top of the boat, and he is always supervised.”

Yadriel’s parents insisted the hotline report was the result of bad blood between them and wildlife officers. “The mother stated they are being harassed by the Florida Fish and Wildlife and the local police department and she feels this is where the report is coming from,” said a notation. Officers “came by the boat a few months ago with their guns drawn on them and she begged and pleaded with them to leave them alone.”

Veloz, the Fish and Wildlife spokesman, declined to discuss the parents’ allegations, saying the case is still open. “Everything is under investigation, and that’s all we have,” he said. “We did state that we were worried about the welfare of the child, and that’s what was written, and that’s why we made a report to DCF.”