Florida

Records refer to ‘chaotic’ family life before Florida girl’s fatal beating

Jenica Randazzo
Jenica Randazzo

When Jenica Randazzo was removed from her grandparents’ home in September 2012, child welfare administrators had concluded she was in “substantial and immediate danger.”

A court-appointed guardian and a foster care worker remained “adamantly against” any contact between the girl and her grandparents a year later when foster care administrators considered reunifying the family. The private agency, which contracts with the Department of Children & Families, proceeded with the plan.

The skeptics proved hauntingly prophetic: On Feb. 7, Jenica’s uncle, who lived in the Pasco County home, bludgeoned 9-year-old Jenica to death with a tire iron, police say.

Executives with Eckerd Community Alternatives reviewed their handling of the case, and concluded “there were no indications that could have predicted this tragic outcome.”

Professionals involved with Jenica strongly believed grandparents Angela and Ernesto Rios cared more deeply for the children than non-relative caregivers, and offered the best chance to keep the siblings together. “When possible, keeping bonded brothers and sisters together is important,” said Brian Bostick, Eckerd’s executive director.

“Jenica’s tragic death is an unfortunate event that every one of my staff has mourned since the sad news was shared,” he added.

While it’s certainly true that no one thought 24-year-old Jason Rios would go on a tool-swinging rampage — he beat his mother to death with the tire iron, severely injured Jenica’s younger sister, and tried to bore a hole in his own neck with a power drill before being subdued by police, they say — records refer to a “chaotic” family in which the children often were deemed to be at “high” or “moderate” risk of harm.

Thousands of pages of documents released last week by Eckerd — many of which are heavily redacted — raise as many questions as they answer, though additional records provided to the Miami Herald by DCF shed some additional light. Left unexplained:

▪  Why did Eckerd hastily remove Jenica and her siblings from Ernesto and Angela Rios in 2012? The records offer some clues, but redactions make any solid conclusions difficult. It appears the couple had problems supervising the children, and Eckerd case notes show that some of the young children were touching each other inappropriately. One document says Ernesto Rios instructed Jenica to lie about being left together with a sibling.

▪  Why did administrators later return the children? Caseworkers described Ernesto and Angela Rios as loving and devoted to the grandchildren. But the records show that at least two people heavily involved with Jenica and her siblings had grave reservations.

Jenica and her siblings were removed from their mother, Jessica Rios, in 2011, records show. That December, DCF’s hotline received a report that Rios was an “intravenous drug addict” who abused cocaine, Dilaudid and other opiate drugs from a pain clinic. The report also alleged that Rios had sex in front of her children, and that one of Rios’ sex partners had touched Jenica inappropriately.

At the time of the report, Rios’ father was trying to get her into drug treatment, and DCF had been told she had abused drugs since at least 2005. Jenica went to live with her paternal grandmother, though that arrangement did not last long, and she moved into the Rios home with siblings.

In February 2012, the children’s court-ordered guardian-ad-litem wrote an email to the family’s casemanager. “I know the state prefers placement with family, but I wonder if the maternal grandparents are the best choice,” the guardian wrote. The guardian also cited “anger problems,” though redactions make it impossible to determine who was angry.

Eckerd’s notes say the grandchildren were taken from Ernesto and Angela Rios’ home on or around Sept. 13, 2012, on a court order “that the children be removed immediately.”

A DCF investigation initiated at the time says only that the guardian was concerned about conditions in the Rios home, and the fact that Angela Rios had suffered a stroke, was using a wheelchair to get around, and had become unable to care for four very difficult children. Ernesto Rios, a report said, was “overwhelmed” but declining services from the state.

At a hearing that day, a Pasco child welfare judge cited “the caregivers’ inability to properly manage the children” as a reason for their move to licensed foster care.

“Continuation in the home,” a caseworker from the hearing wrote, “is contrary to the welfare of the children because the home situation presents a substantial and immediate danger which cannot be mitigated by the provision of prevention services and [foster care] placement is necessary to protect the children.”

But if foster care was supposed to be a respite from the storm, that’s not what happened.

DCF’s records — abuse investigations there are conducted by the Pasco Sheriff’s Office — show that Jenica was removed from one foster home in the summer of 2013 when authorities were warned that the foster father may have been a drug addict.

From an Aug. 30, 2013 hotline report: “The foster parents use drugs extensively, particularly the foster father. The foster father receives around $3,000 for the care of the children and he spends every dime of it on crack cocaine and marijuana.” Jenica was moved to another foster home.

Less than a year later, Jenica was moving again.

DCF’s hotline had received a report about the newest foster home. The foster mother, the report said, was spanking Jenica’s 3-year-old brother, and had “hit Jenica in the mouth.”

Both Jenica and her little brother told investigators “they were being physically disciplined” for misbehaving, a form of punishment that is contrary to DCF policy. The foster mother admitted she hit the boy on his lip, “causing him to bleed, though it was noted by caregiver to be accidental,” a report said.

Because “there is no physical evidence of abuse” — the boy’s lip wasn’t bleeding anymore — the abuse was not substantiated, and the home was allowed to remain open.

In March 2013, Angela and Ernesto Rios went to court. They said they wanted to adopt all four kids if possible, and expressed a willingness to accept help from social workers.

The couple received a favorable review by a therapist who looked at how well they had “bonded” to the children. And the grandparents “followed through quickly” with services recommended by caseworkers and with changes to their home, Eckerd spokeswoman Terri Durdaller said.

The following September, the Rioses began intensive in-home parenting and counseling from a program called Urgent Family Care, Durdaller said.

A counselor with the program visited the family twice each week. “The counselor’s notes and her participation in staffings and hearings consistently indicate that she had no concerns with the grandparents’ ability to care for and protect the children and she was fully in support of the return of the children to their care,” Durdaller said.

“The maternal grandparents remained committed to these children throughout the entire case and worked hard to address the concerns that were raised regarding their ability to protect the children,” Durdaller said.

The children’s guardian remained skeptical, saying in a formal recommendation, “the children would be better adopted outside of the family, and not with the maternal grandparents.” Two months later, a notation said the “GAL is in opposition [to] any contact with the grandparents and the children.”

In December 2013, the first of Jenica’s siblings was brought to the Rios home.

The Rios family’s home was described as “chaotic,” with the grandparents often unable to control the children’s behaviors.

The plan was to reunify the the children slowly, to mitigate the stress. But the issues with the girl’s foster mother accelerated the process. In June 2014, Jenica was removed from the foster mother and returned to Ernesto and Angela Rios, though only a week or so earlier, Jenica had disclosed after a visit that the family’s electricity had been turned off. Running water was out of service, as well, because the well pump needed power.

A report from the same time notes that the grandparents had coached Jenica “to lie to the judge” about being allowed to sleep on a couch with a sibling — contrary to orders that the kids sleep in separate rooms at all times.

None of the reports came close to matching the events that occurred on Feb. 7. The day before, Jenica had shown a caseworker her report card. She’d gotten three Cs and two Ds, records say. She was eating ice cream, and said she had no “explanation for why her grades had dropped.”

Police said that on Feb. 7 Ernesto Rios first saw his son pacing about the house, and was, moments later, roused from the shower by the screams of his 7-year-old granddaughter. Jason Rios, police said, was standing above the girl with a tire iron raised over his head, poised to strike her again. Angela Rios was found deceased in her bed with “blunt force trauma,” and Jenica, too, died from similar injuries.

“Dad,” Jason Rios told his father, “I f----d up,” the police report said.

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