Last year, Yun Suk “Lee” Manchester was at the center of “a perfect storm”: a 2-year-old boy had become a virtual orphan when his mom, a drug-addicted prostitute, abandoned him to a stranger, but then insisted on taking him back. Child protection administrators left him in limbo, only to see him again months later at the Miami morgue.
Department of Children & Families administrators recommended that Manchester, a child protection program administrator in North Florida, be fired following the brutal killing of Ezra Raphael. Her top boss refused to fire her, and she was given, instead, a one-month suspension.
Manchester did leave the department earlier this month, however, in the wake of another tragedy — this one the gunshot slaying of six young siblings in the small town of Bell, near Gainesville. Records released to the Miami Herald show Manchester oversaw the investigators and supervisors who had been involved with the family of Sarah Spirit in the months leading up to the children’s deaths.
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Manchester resigned from DCF in a three-paragraph letter. “Thank you for the support that you have provided me during my tenure with the [department],” she wrote to Regional Manager David Abramowitz. “It has been my pleasure to work with exceptional individuals dedicated to serving the state of Florida.”
Two other DCF employees who were involved with the Spirit family cases, Family Safety Regional Operations Manager Amy Butler and Child Protective Investigator Supervisor Cynthia Speed, were transferred to the agency’s Economic Self Sufficiency department on Oct. 3, records show. That department oversees DCF’s food stamp and public assistance efforts. Butler’s pay was cut by 54 percent, from $79,000 to $36,000. Speed’s salary was trimmed by 47 percent, from $50,200 to $26,540.
Manchester was hired by DCF in 1999, and rose to the level of program administrator for child protection efforts in Florida’s Eighth Judicial Circuit, which encompasses Alachua, Baker, Bradford, Gilchrist, Levy and Union counties — a collection of mostly rural areas that hug the Georgia border to the north, and the Gulf of Mexico marshes to the west. As program administrator, Manchester oversaw the hiring, ongoing training, and direct supervision of abuse investigators and their first-level bosses.
Her personnel file was unremarkable for most of her tenure, as she scored generally average to high marks from supervisors during yearly evaluations.
Manchester declined to speak with the Herald. “I no longer work for the department,” she said.
Ezra was born May 11, 2011, to a teenage prostitute and drug user who already had lost custody of an older child to the state. In June of the following year, mother Cierrah Raphael gave the infant to a near-stranger she met at the home of her former foster mother. The caregiver, Elizabeth Wims, took Ezra with her to Gainesville, and took care of him as best she could with virtually no help from Raphael or the state.
In February 2013, Raphael and her chosen caregiver were at odds: Wims needed free childcare and financial assistance to raise the now-toddler; she couldn’t both work and stay home to care for him. Raphael, on the other hand, had no interest in relinquishing her financial assistance, and, at times, had expressed interest in taking Ezra back. Wims asked DCF for help with subsidized child-care — which she got — and to fortify her claims to the child.
“The mother wanted the child back,” an inspector general report said. But Raphael, who had sent texts to Ezra’s caregiver explaining she was selling herself to get by, did not appear to be an appropriate caregiver. “The mother was so uncooperative and ‘off the wall’ that [investigator Beth Mack] could not get any information from her. The mother refused to provide information about where she was living” so Mack could determine whether Ezra would be safe with her.
At first, records show, Mack asked her supervisors to allow her to “shelter” Ezra — to strip Raphael of legal custody over him for his protection. The 56-page inspector general report, though, says her request went nowhere: Mack suggested her efforts were rebuffed by agency lawyers. Lawyers said they asked Mack to gather more evidence to buttress their case.
Mack’s short investigation — it lasted just 20 days, though such probes can take 60 days or longer — concluded with the investigator taking no action on behalf of the boy. Reports said that Mack would consider legal action only if Raphael “showed up wanting to take the child.”
An interview with Raphael’s former foster mom during the investigation suggested Raphael’s motives for wanting the toddler may have been less than maternal: “The mother did not want to give up [redacted] money to support the child, and this was why she wanted the child back,” the report said.
Mack’s supervisor, Nicole Ferranti, told the inspector general her office was under great pressure to close investigations within a month so that caseloads appeared to be lower. In hindsight, Ferranti said “Mack did a ‘horrible job documenting the case and acknowledged that she [herself] did a ‘horrible’ job reviewing it,” the report said. The two were convinced Ezra was safe, and began thinking “OK, lets’ start wrapping things up.”
The plan became “Let’s move on; and that’s exactly what we did,” the report quoted Ferranti as saying.
The plan unraveled months later. Raphael insisted that she get her son back, and Wims — who was convinced she would get in trouble for withholding the boy — drove him to North Miami Beach to hand him over. What DCF did not know, because it never checked: Raphael was living with Claude Alexis, whose history of 20 arrests included larceny, burglary, car theft, marijuana and cocaine possession, battery, and strong-arm robbery.
On the night of June 21, 2013, Alexis beat Ezra to death with a belt because the toddler spilled bathwater on the floor, he told police. Alexis was babysitting the boy while his mother went to work prostituting. Alexis is awaiting trial on charges of first-degree murder. Raphael was charged with child neglect.
Although there is no record that DCF has completed a formal review of Ezra’s death, the inspector general report detailed a host of lapses: The investigation was truncated and incomplete because administrators were too concerned about closing it quickly. Front-line workers failed to follow through with requests from their lawyers, who could have filed a petition in court to keep Ezra from his mom. Though Ezra was at serious risk, the agency moved on without first establishing his “legal relationship to a responsible adult.” DCF also failed to aid Raphael, who suffered from untreated depression, abused drugs and was working as a prostitute.
Ezra, an agency monitor said, was a little boy whose older sibling had already been removed from their mother. The mom, in turn, had a drug problem, mental illness and no means of support outside of prostitution. What investigators faced was “a perfect storm” of risk — though they closed the case without taking any action.
The inspector general report does not link the various lapses to specific agency workers. But detailed timelines show that: Manchester completed what’s called a “second-party review” — in essence, overseeing the work of both Mack and her first-line supervisor, Ferranti — on Feb. 3, 2013. She instructed Mack to perform several additional tasks, some of which never were completed. Several days later, Manchester agreed to close the case without Mack taking any action to aid Ezra or his mother.
“Non-relative caregiver was advised to contact DCF when the mother comes to retrieve the child,” Manchester wrote. Wims, the caregiver, not only failed to make the call — she brought Ezra back to his mother. She told DCF she had contacted Mack, warning her that Raphael wanted her son back, and that Mack refused to act — a claim Mack denied.
Manchester, who oversaw the case, was given a one-month suspension, though, sources told the Herald, investigators had originally recommended she be fired.
In informing Manchester of her suspension, Abramowitz, her top boss, took time to praise her: “Please know that you are a valued member of our child protective investigations staff, and this action is not administered lightly,” he wrote. “I have complete confidence in your ability to be an effective program administrator and leader.”
Her next performance evaluation, four months after she returned from the suspension, remained positive: “Ms. Manchester’s personal potential is limitless, she is one of the most dedicated members of our team and she shows strong personal responsibility for her team and staff,” said the evaluation, performed by Butler.
The evaluation makes no mention of Ezra Raphael, though it does refer to “tough times in the Gainesville service center.” It notes that Manchester’s team had “met scorecard targets for performance measures 95 to 99 percent of the time” — a reference to numeric measures of how caseloads were handled, such as how long an investigations remained open.
In Manchester’s last evaluation, in June, Butler wrote she had “complete faith in her, and [knew] few people with her level of dedication.”
On Sept. 18, Spirit’s four school-age children stepped off their school bus and into their grandfather’s Gilchrist County mobile home. An hour or so later, their grandfather, Don Spirit, shot all six of the youngsters, as well as their mom, before killing himself.
Killed that afternoon were: Alana Stewart, 2 months; Brandon Stewart, 4; Destiny Stewart, who was a week shy of her sixth birthday; Johnathan Kuhlmann, 8; Kylie Kuhlmann, 9; and Kaleb Kuhlmann, 11. The deaths of Spirit’s children represented the largest loss of life among siblings with a child welfare record in the state’s history.
The killings were the culmination of the Spirit family’s eight-year history with DCF, which included reports of beatings, burnings, parental drug abuse, inadequate supervision, medical and nutritional neglect and abandonment.
Don Spirit had killed his son, Kyle, 13 years earlier in what was reported as a hunting accident. He was never charged with Kyle’s death, but went to prison as a convicted felon in possession of a firearm.