At hearing, DCF boss discusses 2 violent child deaths

Keishanna Thomas
Keishanna Thomas

Amid one of the most challenging weeks of his 19-month administration, Department of Children & Families Secretary Mike Carroll appeared before lawmakers Thursday to explain how two Tampa Bay-area children could have violently perished — one beaten to death, the other stuffed in a locked freezer — after child welfare authorities had failed to intervene.

In recent weeks, DCF has been shaken by two separate horrors: On Sept. 16, police say, “Baby Chance” Walsh was beaten to death by his father in Sarasota County — weeks after a DCF hotline counselor had “screened out” a report that Chance’s mother was abusing drugs. Then, on Sunday night, police recovered the body of a little girl from a Bradenton freezer. It is believed to be that of 11-year-old Janiya Thomas, who vanished after the agency relinquished supervision of her chronically troubled mother, who had been the subject of a dozen hotline calls.

The chairwoman of the Senate’s Children, Families & Elder Affairs Committee, Hollywood Democrat Eleanor Sobel, opened Thursday’s meeting by brandishing news clippings of the twin tragedies. “The horrors that continue in this state are awful,” she said.

Carroll addressed the media coverage directly, saying “some of it [was] accurate, much of it not.”

And while Carroll acknowledged his agency had “system failures,” he also deflected some of the blame for the two outcomes on local communities: “How can an 11-year-old in this state be missing for more than a year and nobody know about it? There’s something wrong with that,” he told the committee.

“We have some ills in our community that we have to work on. The outcomes these children experience was not right and we have to find a better way.’’

While senators were searching for answers, they didn’t point fingers at DCF.

“I was just waiting for them to all blame DCF,” said Sen. Nancy Detert, a Naples Republican. “When there’s a death of a baby, you want to blame somebody and DCF is the easy target. We can pass all the laws in the world but the only way you can change anything is if there is even a whisper of bad parenting the state takes the baby. I don’t think we want that kind of a police state.”

Authorities began looking for “Baby Chance” around Oct. 4, a DCF incident report states. His parents, Kristen Bury and Joseph Walsh, were in South Carolina, “and were providing conflicting stories of his whereabouts.” Family members had not seen him in three weeks. Following a tip to police, Chance’s body was recovered “in a remote area” of North Port, in southern Sarasota County. Records show a DCF hotline worker had, on July 28, dismissed a report that Bury was abusing opiate drugs and had nowhere to live after “her house burned down.”

We can pass all the laws in the world but the only way you can change anything is if there is even a whisper of bad parenting the state takes the baby. I don’t think we want that kind of a police state.

Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Naples

“Does not rise to the level of reasonable cause to suspect,” the hotline worker wrote.

Carroll suggested the hotline counselor should not have dismissed the caller.

“I’ve listened to that call personally,” he said. “It certainly met the allegation metrics and should have resulted in a call to the hospital,” where the baby was, just after his birth.

Janiya’s mother, Keishanna Thomas, was receiving “voluntary” services from a privately run Tampa Bay-area child welfare agency in the summer of 2014 when Thomas balked at remaining under state supervision. Thomas “took no ownership of anything that was happening,” and “became uncooperative” with caseworkers, Carroll told the committee. “It was determined that the case would be closed as non-compliant but if they had anymore involvement with the family, they would take legal action.”

When the next hotline call was made this fall, though, Thomas had only four children, not the five who had been with her a year earlier.

“Every child’s a gift and these folks abused their gift too many times to have another gift,” Carroll said.

The Senate committee also passed a bill that attempts to improve conditions for children who are taken from abusive and dangerous homes and put into state custody. The measure, SB 7018, attempts to encourage community providers to reduce the use of group homes — which many legislators consider harmful to children — and provide more “preventive support for unsafe families” and recruit more relatives and other people close to a child’s family to serve as foster parents.