Innocents Lost: Preserving families but losing children in Florida

This story is part of the Innocents Lost Investigative series. Read an enhanced version of this story here.

Fraternal twins Tariji and Tavont’ae Gordon were born together but died two years, eight months and 24 days apart. One was buried in a potter’s field; the other was disposed of in a shallow grave covered by earth, plywood and a sheet of tin.

Tavont’ae, the first to die, suffocated at 2 months of age while sleeping on a couch with his mother, Rachel Fryer, who later tested positive for cocaine. Child welfare authorities took Tariji from Fryer and put her in foster care. Then they gave her back, convinced Fryer had tamed her drug habit and neglectful ways. Three months later, Tariji was killed by a blow to the head.

Fryer stuffed Tariji’s body into a leopard-print suitcase, caught a ride and buried her 50 miles from her Sanford home. The girl’s pink-and-white shoe, an unintended grave marker atop freshly turned dirt, was the only hint of her life and death. She would have turned 3 this month.

The twins joined a sad procession of children who died, often violently, after the Florida Department of Children & Families had been warned, often repeatedly, that they or their siblings could be in danger.

They tumbled into canals and drowned, baked in furnace-like cars, were soaked in corrosive chemicals, incinerated, beaten mercilessly, and bounced off walls and concrete pavement. One was jammed into a cooler posthumously; others were wrapped like a mummy to silence their cries, flattened by a truck, overdosed and starved. An infant boy was flung from a moving car on an interstate. A 2-year-old girl was killed by her mom’s pet python.

The children were not just casualties of bad parenting, but of a deliberate shift in Florida child welfare policy. DCF leaders made a decision, nearly 10 years ago, to reduce by as much as half the number of children taken into state care, adopting a philosophy known as family preservation. They also, simultaneously, slashed services, monitoring and protections for the increased number of children left with their violent, neglectful, mentally ill or drug-addicted parents.

The result: Many more children died.

“It’s the system that’s broken. When numbers take over instead of outcomes for people, you are doomed to failure,” said James Harn, a 30-year law enforcement officer who spent his last nine years as a commander supervising child abuse investigators at the Broward Sheriff’s Office before leaving a year ago. “They want to keep families together, but at what cost?”

Prompted by a series of high-profile deaths — cases that have brought scorn and periodic leadership changes to DCF — a Miami Herald investigative team dug through six years of DCF deaths “verified” by the state as abuse or neglect, starting with Jan. 1, 2008. The Herald focused on those deaths in which the family had at least one encounter with child welfare over the previous five years.

Among the newspaper’s findings:

• The number of deaths with prior contacts

totaled at least 477

, far more than child welfare administrators reported to the governor and the Legislature. The agency under-reported by as many as 39 children in a given year. Lawmakers could have committed more money to address the problem had they known its full scope. Instead, they cut funding.

• The overwhelming majority of the children were

5 or younger

, and slightly over 70 percent were

2 or younger

— in many instances, too young to walk, talk, cry out for help, run away or defend themselves.

• Drugs or alcohol were linked to 323 of the deaths, and yet the state cut dollars for drug treatment. Children snatched their parents’ pain pills off nightstands, gobbled them and died. They were smothered by moms who passed out while breastfeeding under the influence. One Hillsborough County couple concealed a loaded semiautomatic handgun under their sleeping baby’s pillow during a drug raid.

Ulysses Franklin

, 6 months old at the time of the raid, survived, was removed by the state and returned only to be crushed by a car months later while left unattended in a parking lot.

• Rather than go to court to force parents to get treatment or counseling, the state often relied on

“safety plans”

— written promises by parents to sin no more. Many of the pledges carried no meaningful oversight. Children died —

more than 80 of them

— after their parents signed one or, in some cases, multiple safety plans.

• Parents were given repeated chances to shape up, and failed, and failed and failed again, and still kept their children. In at least 34 cases, children died after DCF had logged 10 or more reports to the agency’s abuse and neglect hotline. Six families had been the subject of at least 20 reports.

Twenty-six times, DCF received calls about Kaleb Cronk’s family. The 27th was to report his death when the 1-year-old from Palatka was run over by a tricked-out red pickup truck as he crawled across a private road. Kaleb’s mother, Amy Sowell, had been arrested 18 times and had been the subject of repeated DCF reports of chronic drug abuse and inadequate supervision.

“I don’t think we are broken; I think we are challenged,” interim DCF Secretary Esther Jacobo said in a two-hour interview. “If what exists in our community is not adequate to keep a child safe in the home, the only answer is to remove that child from the home. Maybe we got it backwards, in that we tried to reduce out-of-home care before having those safety services that are needed. But I firmly believe if you have those safety services, you should be striving to fix a family. That is our mandate.”

Jacobo said the agency is improving its child welfare computer system to ensure staffers don’t close investigations without first determining that needed services are in place, revamping its process for studying and reporting on child deaths, and experimenting with other child protection methods, such as having investigators work in pairs on high-risk cases.

Two weeks after Jacobo spelled out her reforms in an interview, the latest DCF scandal erupted: It involved Tariji Gordon, Death No. 477.

Tavont’ae and Tariji

In May 2011, Rachel Fryer dozed off on a couch with her newborns. Because of a heart condition, Tavont’ae needed an apnea monitor, but it was not in use — and was later found stashed in the garage, tangled in a bird’s nest of clutter. Sometime that night while Fryer slept, Tavont’ae suffocated, probably after being wedged under his mother’s foot.

After Tavont’ae’s death, DCF asked a judge to permanently sever Fryer’s rights to her four surviving children — she had already surrendered two others in 2006 after she was accused of selling drugs out of her house. After the death was ruled an accident, Tariji and her siblings were returned to their mother in November 2013 with DCF’s blessing.

Two months later, a court-appointed guardian requested a hearing on the children’s reunification, citing “pressing concerns.”

Tariji was found on Feb. 11 in an unmarked grave in Crescent City.

Fryer denied she killed her daughter, telling police she found the girl unresponsive and tried CPR and asthma medication, to no avail. However, one of her children told investigators Fryer would cruelly mistreat Tariji, hitting her with a broomstick. Tariji’s father said Fryer forced her to stand in a corner with her arms taped over her head. Three surviving siblings have been sheltered — again — and police reopened their investigation into Tavont’ae’s death.

Fryer, jailed without bond, is expecting another child.

The undercount

For more than a year, Herald reporters examined thousands of pages of case histories — 1,738 pages on Tavont’ae and Tariji alone. They pored over death reviews, police and court records, internal emails, autopsy reports, criminal histories and health department reports. The Herald interviewed people across the state, including a woman imprisoned for aiding in the death of her child. It sued three times over some records, obtained others from confidential sources, and still others through negotiations with the agency.

Those records, collectively, show that child welfare administrators consistently under-reported the number of verified deaths by abuse and neglect. For example, in 2009, the state reported 69 child deaths “with priors” to the governor and Legislature. The Herald, using records provided by DCF, tallied 107.

In 2010, DCF reported 41 deaths among families with a prior history to the state Department of Health, which collects child death analyses and issues the yearly report on child fatalities. The Herald, relying on records DCF provided, counted 75. Months later, a DCF consultant, hired in response to the Herald’s still-unpublished investigation, came up with 73.

“Under-reporting and under-verification compromise the validity of the statistics [and] make it more difficult to ascertain true progress in combating these problems and, most importantly, defeat efforts to identify causes of preventable death,” Bruce McIntosh, a pediatrician who heads the state’s Child Protection Team in Jacksonville, said in a March 2011 memo to DCF’s top death coordinator.

Florida’s death totals per 100,000 kids are generally among the highest in the nation, although such comparisons are difficult.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services keeps a yearly tally, but the numbers are self-reported. Some states don’t report their “with priors” totals.

Additionally, different states follow different standards for what is considered a prior. The best gauge of states’ records of protecting children might be reporting by news organizations.

In 2013, the Denver Post looked at six years of child deaths. The Post found 72 in Colorado; the Herald found 477 in Florida. Florida had three times as many children but six times as many deaths.

When 8-week-old Kyla Joy Hall was hospitalized with a bleeding brain and fractures to both legs, both wrists and a foot, police could not determine which of her parents injured her. One thing was certain: Someone had inflicted life-threatening harm on a newborn.

While Kyla healed in a medical foster home, child welfare authorities moved to strip both parents of their rights to her. But when her mother bowed out of the picture — to become an actress — her father transformed, without explanation, from abuse suspect into fit parent. Josi Hall, a Jacksonville firefighter, was awarded full custody despite the misgivings of his own mother.

Ten months later, Kyla’s father viciously attacked her. Her injuries included a “pulpified” liver, knuckle-sized bruises to her chest and, the decisive blow, a cleaved heart that sustained damage similar to “that of a kick from a horse,” an autopsy said.

Prosecutor Alan Mizrahi called the decision to reunite father and daughter a roll of the dice with a child’s life. “Kyla lost,” he said.

The name Kyla Joy Hall is now etched into a heart-shaped grave marker in Atlantic Beach. Josi Hall is now prisoner #J41592 at Franklin Correctional Institution, serving a life sentence.

“There are people at DCF who believe it is riskier to remove a child and place him in foster care than to leave him in even the most dangerous environment,” said Circuit Judge Daniel Dawson, who has presided over child welfare cases in Orange and Osceola counties for three decades.

History of missteps

Last summer, the Herald detailed the deaths of four children in six weeks, all with a prior family history. The stories elicited an outcry, and the agency’s secretary, David Wilkins, resigned. His interim replacement, Jacobo, referred to those deaths in an interview as a “cluster,” although the Herald’s examination of child deaths made clear that four deaths in six weeks in Florida is hardly a cluster. The state usually records one or two each week.

It wasn’t always that way. From 1999 to 2003, the number of deaths with priors never exceeded 35. After the state outlined its goal of reduced out-of-home care, child deaths spiked, peaking at 107 in 2009, by the Herald’s count.

The official numbers have receded since then, but there were a number of factors at work, including a delay in “verifying” neglect and abuse deaths, and a deliberate shift away from classifying drownings and accidental suffocations as due to neglect.

The death toll rose as DCF left children with dangerous felons; took at face value the stories of parents and step-parents who claimed their bruised, bloodied offspring were klutzes, not victims; and ignored the warnings of teachers, who are the agency’s eyes and ears in the school system. At times, they failed or were slow to perform mandatory criminal background checks on caregivers with violent histories, and took little or no action when pill-popping mothers and fathers declined drug screenings or treatment.

The agency left small children with career criminals, caregivers who had cracked a child’s skull and a grandmother who had kept a 3-year-old in a cage. They once ordered a father to install a “panic button” in his son’s bedroom closet after the child was returned to his custody.

After a series of critical Herald stories about child deaths last year, DCF asked national child welfare consultant Casey Family Programs to study its operations, including 40 deaths during 2013.

Among Casey’s recommendations: Develop an array of services — including free child-care, in-home parenting instruction and respite care — to help struggling families, and do away with “promissory note” safety plans.

The report said investigations preceding a child’s death were often incomplete, and that investigators failed to grasp, and act on, the troubled dynamics connected to substance abuse and domestic violence. DCF fixates on isolated events and ignores both the underlying cause of dysfunction and the broader picture, the report added.

“You can’t fix something without understanding it and having some self-examination around it and owning it,” said Jacobo, who incorporated some of the consultant’s proposals into her revamp. “I think we have tried really hard to do that.”

Though not one of the deaths examined, Milo Rupert’s story is indicative of the Casey group’s findings. When the agency found a house in Avon Park infested with cockroaches, it saw a pest-control problem, not a mental health or drug abuse issue that merited ongoing services and supervision. After exterminators were summoned and the bugs were banished, DCF walked away.

Over five years, there were four investigations of the household. They alleged the children were malnourished, slept in urine-soaked beds and lived in a home with “cockroaches everywhere.” No one picked up on the degree of child neglect and endangerment in the home. Investigators learned later the three girls were being fed mostly Pop-Tarts, when fed at all, and were held as virtual prisoners in a bedroom, peering out at the world through a window coated on the inside with bugs.

One DCF supervisor suggested that some serious problems might lie behind the squalor, but that possibility was not explored — until the youngest child, Milo, died of malnutrition. By the time anyone looked in on the 10-month-old, he had been dead for hours and the cockroaches had devoured much of his skin. His sisters also suffered horrible bug bites. Milo’s father is serving 24 years for manslaughter; his mother is awaiting trial.

Kids as ‘property’

Under state and federal law, removing children from their parents is always a last resort and must be ordered by a judge; indeed, the permanent loss of custody is called “the parental death penalty.” Investigators have other options, however, including parenting classes, mental health counseling, drug treatment, and free daycare — which a judge can order parents to accept.

Ensuring the safety of Florida’s most vulnerable children is the work of investigators, caseworkers, supervisors, lawyers and service providers. Their mission can be difficult, complex and financially unrewarding. Investigators, on the front line of child protection, start at a salary of $39,600 a year.

“Every parent thinks that they know what their child needs, and essentially we’re going in and telling them that ‘maybe you need to do something different,’ ” said senior child protective investigator Regina Jackson. “Every parent feels like that’s their child — their child is almost like their property, you know? They don’t want anyone to tell them anything.”

The workload for Jackson and her colleagues can be overwhelming. Last year, DCF fielded about 310,050 calls to its statewide hotline, spurring 205,171 investigations across six regions. The vast majority of those cases ended with children remaining in safety with parents or other caregivers.

Amid a spate of town hall meetings, legislative hearings and continuing criticism of the agency, Gov. Rick Scott last month announced a nearly $40 million proposal to reduce investigative caseloads, increase internal oversight and steer additional dollars to sheriff’s offices that investigate child abuse reports. DCF would get a little more than a 1 percent increase in its budget — if the Legislature goes along.

That would be an apparent change in direction. The DCF budget has decreased in five of the past six years, sometimes marginally, other times by a lot. Including vetoes, DCF saw its budget reduced $100 million in the current fiscal year. It was a time of governmental belt-tightening, but DCF took a significantly bigger hit than the budget as a whole.

The governor and DCF say they have increased spending on child protection during Scott’s term by about $10 million, including hiring an additional 150 investigators, even as the overall budget has shrunk. But the agency includes in its child protection numbers $4 million legislators allocated in one-time funds for redesigning the program — money that is not used for client services.

Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, called the state’s child welfare system “porous” and conceded that “tens of millions of dollars” are needed to make improvements.

“I think in child welfare we have gone on the cheap, and I think that’s been a mistake,” he said.

Family preservation

Florida’s first effort to shrink the number of youngsters in care was as much about pragmatism as philosophy. In 2002, DCF Secretary Jerry Regier inherited a department overwhelmed with more than 30,000 backlogged investigations. Among the remedies: increase the number of children adopted from state care and reduce the number of children taken into care in the first place.

Five years later, when Bob Butterworth took over, the former state attorney general embraced the draw-down, seeing it as a way to conserve scarce resources, shield children from foster care and, whenever possible, preserve families.

“The trauma of removal, many times, is more traumatic than the abuse,” Jacobo said. “So if you are able to not traumatize the children and keep them safe, obviously this is the best way to go.”

But, as more children were left behind in troubled households, spending on services and supervision to protect those children did not keep pace.

From 2003 until the present, the number of children in out-of-home care declined from 27,674 to 18,185 — a 34.3 percent reduction. At the same time, the number of children under in-home supervision or receiving family-preservation services also fell, from 17,079 in 2003 to 12,132 as of January 2014 .

“We saw the increase in infant deaths, but we attributed it to the economic downturn, rather than to family preservation,” said George Sheldon, who was DCF secretary from 2008 through 2010 and was assistant secretary under Butterworth.

The agency’s revamped child protection framework served two important masters: parents’ rights groups and some children’s advocates, who wanted the state to stop meddling in the lives of families — and lawmakers, who have cut funding for human services for decades. The two forces found common ground.

“Money,” said Dawson, the Orlando judge, “has frequently driven the bus.”

In recent years, administrators kept a tight rein on spending, in part by maintaining a “high removal list” of regions that were seen as sheltering too many children, emails obtained by the Herald show. Foster care agencies were “financially punished,” a Dade City judge wrote, if they did not reduce their caseloads.

Jacobo, a six-year DCF veteran, denied the agency has been overly concerned with the number of removals.

“Since I have been here, and frankly even when Secretary Wilkins was here, we did not talk about numbers. There was no ‘Tell me who is removing the most here and who is removing the least,’ ” Jacobo said.

If children’s advocates were alarmed by the new policies, their concerns went unheeded.

As early as 2005, a consultant warned that it appeared investigators were “only working with families who are in the most severe, egregious circumstances.” In a report to a Miami watchdog group, Norma Harris said services and interventions for vulnerable children were declining across the board, adding, “There does not appear to be an explanation for the decreases.”

“Children under 5 years of age are at special risk of death,” the health department’s child abuse expert, McIntosh, wrote in 2008, because they were often being forced to remain with parents who could not cope with fussy, crying and hard-to-handle youngsters. McIntosh said DCF justified its policy by giving him academic studies that pertained to much older children than those who were being killed.

The step-grandfather of two Santa Rosa County youngsters complained to DCF in 2009 that a caseworker told him his infant grandson would “have to get hurt before anything could be done” to protect him from his mentally unstable mother.

The boy survived. His sister didn’t. In April 2010, Michelle Vasquez suffocated her baby daughter in the woods. Madison Flores was 8 days old.

Death of Triumph

The short life and cruel death of Triumph Skinner — one of those vulnerable children under 5 — offered an example of how parents were given the benefit of the doubt.

Keith Skinner told investigators he was a “changed man” following his release from prison, where he was sent after whipping his daughter and punching the girl’s mother. Given his past, the agency could have required that Michelle Ford restrict Skinner’s access to their daughter and Ford’s newborn, Triumph, as a condition of her retaining custody.

It didn’t. The agency wrote in a report that Skinner had “served his time for the crime he committed against his own daughter.”

With Skinner back home in Orange County, Triumph’s world descended into hell. Skinner beat Triumph habitually, and would choke the boy into unconsciousness when he cried, reports said. Five months after DCF approved Skinner’s return, he attacked the infant in a frenzy of violence. The catalog of injuries to the 7-month-old included a skull fracture, torn bowel, five broken ribs, and bruises to his eye, shoulder and back. His sister said he “looked like he got run over by a bus.”

“Daddy doesn’t understand that Triumph is just a baby,” the 8-year-old said. Her father is back in prison.

The death of Triumph did not spark town hall meetings or task force reports. Other cases did — followed by great public promises, monies to match and then a trailing-off. Poster children over the past two decades included Bradley McGee, plunged head-first into a toilet for a potty-training accident; Lucas Ciambrone, beaten, starved and tortured by his adoptive parents; Rilya Wilson, vanished from the home of an approved caregiver who sometimes caged her; and Kayla McKean, beaten to death by her father and buried in a national forest.

In February 2011, the death of 10-year-old twin Nubia Barahona prompted the creation of another task force. Nubia, police say, was tortured by her DCF-approved adoptive parents, Jorge and Carmen, beaten to death and stuffed into a trash bag. Then-DCF Secretary Wilkins used the occasion of her death to push what he termed reform legislation. One piece of that new law rescinded a requirement that a judge become involved when children were deemed at high risk. Wilkins’ measure makes it easier for investigators not to act when children are in danger.

They called Wilkins’ reform the Nubia Barahona Act.

Wilkins also revised the state’s risk assessment for children who were the subject of an abuse report. The Children’s Research Center, which designed the measurement tool, accused the state of twisting it to make high-risk cases appear less risky — again resulting in fewer services for troubled families.

‘I can’t heal’

DCF’s failures have left loved ones to pick up the pieces.

Michael Barnett visits his three children every other week. They are at a West Palm Beach cemetery. His two sons and a daughter were killed in a September massacre almost three years ago. After a long and violent history, Patrick Dell shot his estranged wife, Natasha Whyte-Dell — Barnett’s former mate — and five of her children, then killed himself.

Dead in the 2 a.m. rampage: Bryan, 14; Diane, 13; and Daniel, 10. Barnett’s oldest son, Ryan, 15 at the time, survived a bullet in the neck. The children’s half-brother, Javon Nelson, also was killed.

Police had responded to Whyte-Dell’s home 34 times over four years and, in late 2009, reported that Dell had threatened her with a knife at a neighbor’s house. As Whyte-Dell and a friend crouched behind a door, Dell screamed at her, “You will be going to the morgue!” He then carved an “X” in the driveway and slashed all four of her car’s tires. Whyte-Dell obtained a restraining order five months later.

After that encounter, DCF concluded the risk to Whyte-Dell’s children was not “serious” and suggested that she and her kids call 911 if her estranged husband turned violent again — advice the agency now concedes was inadequate. In a death review, DCF said the investigator should have at minimum interviewed neighbors and relatives and consulted police.

Now, Barnett’s memories live in old school photos, a necklace crocheted by Diane, a funeral program and three grave markers. “I sit in my car and cry,” said Barnett, 45, who filed a wrongful-death suit against DCF in 2012.

“I can’t heal,” he said. “This is a sore that can’t heal.”

One supervisor in the Panhandle who studied child deaths for a decade warned her bosses that the department was making the same mistakes over and over, including executing unenforceable safety plans.

“As long as I was in that position, it never changed,” Linda Swan said.

She was laid off two years ago as part of a purge that eliminated 72 percent of DCF’s child welfare “quality assurance” watchdogs.

Bitter end

Mistakes were glaring in the week leading up to Torey Dymond’s death. The 16-month-old was severely beaten by his mother’s boyfriend less than two weeks after they moved to Orlando from Davie. It was the tragic final chapter in the relationship of Rosalia Poirier and Clifton Alexander Frazier.

Four calls to DCF over four months said the two fought and used drugs frequently. The first case was opened in September 2011 after a hotline call alleged Poirier was high on drugs while caring for Torey. In January 2012, Torey was injured when Poirier and Frazier got into a fight in which he dragged and choked her. Had DCF completed a background check, it would have learned that Frazier already had 28 arrests, including a sex offense against a child.

Torey’s grandmother, Loretta Young, believed Torey would become a casualty of her daughter’s bad choices. She pleaded with DCF to remove the boy from Poirier’s care, but lawyers said the agency lacked cause. DCF considered Torey safe as long as his grandmother was watching him. Young insisted Poirier would take the boy away. And she did.

On Feb. 3, 2012, Poirier left Broward County with Torey and moved in with Frazier in Orlando. A series of missteps followed.

On Feb. 7, 2012, child welfare investigators in Broward asked their counterparts in Orange County to check on Torey at Frazier’s home. The visit should have taken place quickly, but didn’t.

A week later, on Valentine’s Day, a DCF supervisor in Orlando emailed the Broward office to document that an investigator had gone to the home that day and no one was there — days after the check was supposed to have been made. Frazier took Torey for a walk in his neighborhood that day and beat the toddler savagely.

His grandmother arrived at the hospital in time to hold her grandson, sing his favorite song Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and pray for him. Torey never reopened his eyes. Frazier is serving 35 years for second-degree murder.

Young finds comfort in a memorial for Torey in her Davie home: dozens of pictures, his first and last footprints, a lock of hair and stuffed animals.

“DCF didn’t murder my grandson,” said Young. “But they didn’t protect him. If they had done their jobs, Torey might be here today.”