In April 2018, state child welfare authorities were told that then-21-year-old Wildline Joseph got stoned regularly, and allowed two of her small children to wander the neighborhood day and night with no supervision.
Investigators with the Broward Sheriff’s Office apparently decided this was acceptable behavior, as they took no action to stop it. So Joseph continued to leave her children outside alone.
Until it killed them.
On May 22, Joseph once again allowed 5-year-old Branario Minto and 6-year-old Ja’kye Joseph to amble their North Lauderdale apartment complex with no oversight long past dark. They were found floating in the complex’s pool after 10 p.m.
Because Joseph had been the subject of a verified abuse report less than a year before the two boys died — BSO investigators concluded Joseph was abusing drugs, even as they dismissed concerns that she wasn’t supervising her kids — child welfare administrators were required to deploy the Department of Children & Families’ Critical Incident Rapid Response Team to investigate the deaths. Under state law, a report from the team must be completed within a month, and the reports must be made public.
The Rapid Response Team was created by lawmakers in 2015 to enhance child welfare administrators’ ability to learn from their mistakes, and to promote transparency within DCF.
DCF, however, has resisted efforts to curb its secrecy.
For six weeks, the Miami Herald has sought records of the two youngsters’ history with DCF and the Broward Sheriff’s Office, which conducts abuse and neglect investigations in Broward under contract with the state — including requests for the Rapid Response Team report. Such reports are public under Florida law. DCF has refused to release any records, though, except for a three-page summary in which all details were redacted.
DCF maintains the records remain confidential because BSO has yet to determine whether the brothers’ deaths resulted from abuse or neglect. Neither agency has commented on the investigation, but its findings will rest on whether it is determined to be appropriate to leave very small children wholly unsupervised for hours.
Broward County Commissioner Nan Rich, a children’s advocate who served eight years in the state Senate, and served on the chamber’s Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee, said it should be obvious to investigators: “It is totally unacceptable to leave a 5-year-old outside for hours,” she said.
“We’ve been through this before,” said Rich, who term-limited from the Senate and won a seat on the Broward County Commission in November 2016. “I believe in transparency. I believe that DCF should let people know what happened. ... Indications were there that the children were in danger, but nobody stepped up to protect them.”
Rich added: “There needs to be more transparency, certainly, and more oversight.”
The Florida Legislature ordered DCF to be more open to scrutiny in 2015, following a series of stories in the Miami Herald, “Innocents Lost,” that showed hundreds of Florida children had died in the wake of DCF’s effort to emphasize the preservation of troubled families, even as the agency cut millions of dollars from programs designed to keep children safe. The overhaul of the state’s child protection system created the Critical Incident Rapid Response Teams, and required DCF to post reviews of child fatalities on its website.
The Miami Herald obtained details of the family’s DCF history from other sources.
Joseph’s contact with child welfare authorities began when she was a child. Between 2008 and 2013, DCF received six separate maltreatment reports, including allegations of physical abuse, environmental hazards, medical neglect and domestic violence. BSO found none of the reports to be credible, however, and took no action other than to refer Joseph’s mother to a community behavioral health provider.
Joseph came to the state’s attention as a mother in 2015, when Branario, then only 2, suffered an apparent seizure. At the hospital, Joseph “was observed to be under the influence, and she admitted to using marijuana daily and had recently begun to use flakka,” a report said. Flakka is a synthetic drug that has been compared to cocaine, but is considered much more dangerous and can produce hallucinations.
When the October 2015 investigation concluded, BSO placed Branario and Ja’kye in the custody of their maternal grandmother — the same woman who had been repeatedly accused of mistreating Joseph — under the supervision of a local judge.
The arrangement didn’t last long: The next year, Joseph reportedly “made a video involving guns in the presence of her children,” a report said. “The investigation revealed that, despite the children having been removed from her care, the mother was frequently with her children without supervision in violation of a court order.” The two boys were moved into foster care.
About seven months later, Branario and Ja’kye were returned to their mother’s care. And the reports continued to pile up.
May 2017: BSO did not substantiate a report that Joseph and her sister were fighting.
January 2018: DCF was called when then-5-year-old Ja’kye “became extremely sick at school — vomiting excessively,” a report said. “When contacted by the school, the mother informed them that she had no way to transport the child to the hospital and that she was also sick.” Authorities took the boy to the hospital. The investigation concluded the brothers were “safe.”
April 2018: A “report was received and alleged that Branario and Ja’kye would run outside when [Joseph] was sleeping and she would scream and threaten to beat them. The report further indicated that the boys were left on their own and were outside all hours of the day and night; and that the mother looked like she was on drugs,” a report said.
“The home had a strong odor of marijuana, and the mother tested positive for the substance,” the report added.
The report with the state child abuse hotline was closed with verified findings that Joseph abused drugs, but no findings that she was leaving her children unsupervised. “The children were assessed to be safe,” a report said, adding that the family was referred to day-care providers, as well as a local mental health and substance abuse agency. The report added, however, that it was unclear whether Joseph accepted any of the help.
December 2018: BSO closed as unfounded a report of domestic violence between Joseph and the father of her two youngest children, as well as an allegation that Joseph had “mental health issues.” The report added: “The children were assessed to be safe and no additional service needs were indicated.”
Five months later, Ja’kye and Branario were found floating in a pool.
Under Florida law, the details of Joseph’s history with child welfare authorities must be made public if the two boys died as a result of abuse or neglect.
But DCF insists it has not determined why the boys died — though the agency’s own report says “the children had reportedly been outside playing unattended for several hours ... while the mother, maternal grandmother and maternal great-grandmother remained inside the residence.” Joseph told reporters that night that she was sleeping.