On a day when Gov. Rick Scott pledged to spend nearly $23 million in new money to better protect Florida’s abused and neglected children, the governor’s troubled child welfare agency released dozens of pages of records detailing the violent family life of one dead child — an 11-year-old girl found last week stuffed inside a freezer — but refused to discuss another.
Scott’s office announced Tuesday morning it had proposed adding $22.9 million in new dollars to the Department of Children & Families’ budget next year — money that would be set aside to hire 272 additional caseworkers employed by the state’s privately run foster care and adoption providers, and to pay for services for struggling families.
“It’s absolutely heartbreaking when a child is a victim of abuse or neglect. Anytime something horrific happens to an innocent child, we have to stop and think about what we can do to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” the governor said.
Scott’s announcement came at a difficult time for an agency that for years has been steeped in scandal. Last week, DCF Secretary Mike Carroll appeared before a state Senate committee to explain how two Tampa Bay-area children — newborn “Baby Chance” Walsh of Sarasota County, and 11-year-old Janiya Thomas of Bradenton — had perished after their parents had been the subject of multiple calls to the state.
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“Every child’s a gift and these folks abused their gift too many times to have another gift,” Carroll said.
Late last week, a third child was added to the roster: 16-month-old Yadriel Alba, who drowned in Biscayne Bay Oct. 23, three months after officers with the Miami Beach Police Department warned DCF that the toddler might not be safe.
Yadriel’s parents, Yamilys Alba and Oscar Estable, reported the toddler missing from their boat anchored near the MacArthur Causeway. Estable told police he had left the boat to go grocery shopping at a food mart on Michigan Avenue. Yadriel was sleeping with his mother. When Estable returned an hour later, a police report said, Alba was asleep — and Yadriel had disappeared.
A Miami Beach Police officer found the boy floating near the shore, “unconscious, not breathing and with a pale blue discoloration.” In a short statement, police said officers had notified DCF on Aug. 19 “regarding Miami Beach PD’s concerns about conditions on the resident vessel.”
Niether parent has been charged with any crime.
In a statement, DCF said an investigation into Yadriel’s death remains open, and the agency is “working closely with law enforcement as we look into this tragedy. The agency declined to release any records on the family other than an incident report containing two sentences, one of which confirmed the agency’s unspecified history with Yadriel.
“The death of any child is a heartbreaking event,” Carroll said.
As to Janiya, DCF had received six separate reports that the girl’s mother, Keishanna Thomas, had beaten or physically injured one of her five children.
Acting on requests from the Miami Herald and other media, the Department of Children & Families released 26 pages of records Tuesday, mostly summaries of seven of the dozen investigations conducted into Thomas’ family since 2000. A DCF spokeswoman said the agency would not discuss its history with Thomas, and referred questions to the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office, which handles abuse and neglect reports in the county south of Tampa Bay.
Safety arrived for the Thomas children earlier this month, but at a terrible price: After her son was reportedly punched in the face and banged into a mirror, Thomas’ children were finally removed — except for the boy’s 11-year-old sister, who was missing and later found stuffed inside a locked freezer.
Thomas, 31, is in the Manatee County Jail, facing charges of aggravated child abuse abuse. Her history with child welfare authorities appears to have begun in 2000, when she was still a child. The details of one 2000 case are unclear. In another, Thomas was alleged to have medically neglected the oldest of her children.
The first detailed account of Thomas’ DCF history began in 2004, and, like all the other cases, was handled by the sheriff’s office, which began conducting abuse and neglect investigations in Manatee under contract with DCF in 1998. The Sept. 16, 2004, hotline report was serious enough to prompt investigators to shelter Thomas’ oldest daughter, who is not named.
“The mother picked up [the child] off the toilet and choked her real bad,” the report said. “She then threw her on the floor and then the mother slapped her. She is beaten every day, possibly because the mother does not want to care for her. She only gets one meal a day, at night. The home is a nasty house. There are roaches all over, trash, rats, garbage piled up and dishes not washed.”
The hotline caller added: “This has been going on forever.”
Upon examination, the youngster displayed “approximately 22 scars and healing marks,” a report said, and the girl blamed the scars on her mother. “Keishanna beat me,” she said. Investigators verified that Thomas had abused her daughter, though the sheriff’s office concluded the children’s home was safe. Records show the daughter, who was about 4 at the time, was taken into state custody as a result of the probe, but later was returned to Thomas’ care after the mom completed a set of tasks.
Three years later, on Sept. 17, 2007, DCF’s hotline received another report that Thomas had abused one of her children. The report appears to concern the same girl who earlier had been removed. It alleged that Thomas had “pushed” the girl, now about 7, to the floor, leaving the child with a half-dollar-size bruise. The girl had had scratches on her face, “like fingernails caught her face.”
Thomas’ daughter refused to speak with investigators, other than to deny any abuse. The girl claimed she had scratched her own face, although a doctor who specializes in detecting child abuse found the story suspicious. He wrote the girl, who had only one functioning arm, could not have scratched herself with her right hand, and would have had difficulty scratching herself with the left. The sheriff’s office dismissed the case a few weeks later, finding only “some” indications of abuse.
A March 2014 report said Thomas had pulled down the pants of her son and “struck him” on his bottom and right forearm with an electrical cord. The boy sustained welts from what his mother called an open-handed spanking. But a child abuse specialist ruled the injuries were “abusive, and consistent with being hit with an electrical cord.” The sheriff’s office declined to verify the incident as abuse, but did convince Thomas to accept supervision from a child welfare group.
Around June, however, Thomas became uncooperative, and the state closed its supervision case with her as “non-compliant.” Some time after that, Janiya vanished. Authorities discovered she was missing when yet another report was phoned to the hotline. Thomas reportedly “punched [her son] in the mouth and in his head, and she slapped him in the face.” Later, the report said, Thomas “grabbed him by his head and banged the right side of his head into the mirror.”
DCF removed Thomas’ children, saying: “The children have become increasingly fearful of their mother and frequently feel unsafe in their home environment.”
Thomas, who is pregnant, “does not take responsibility for anything that happens, and she always blames [one of her children] for the issues in the home,” a report said. It said the mother “was seen to be quick tempered and very combative” with both investigators and police.