The Florida Department of Children and Families’ failed experiment with its child-welfare system had a hand in the deaths of innocent children.
“When I lost her, I lost a huge chunk of who I am,’’ said Tiffany Howard, the grandmother of Jewel Re’nee Howard, a 4-year-old who was killed by her mother’s boyfriend. Despite visits from child welfare officials to the child’s home, Jewel suffered broken ribs, internal bleeding and badly mangled internal organs before dying.
“Every night when I try to go to sleep, I ask myself, how could this have happened to my baby?’’ Howard said. She isn’t alone in pursuing this question.
Their stories are both gut-wrenching and heartbreaking. They are the murdered children of Florida, victims of their parents and guardians — the very people entrusted with caring for them and keeping them safe.
They are also victims of the state. Slipping through the cracks of governmental bureaucracy and penny-pinching efforts, their lives were sacrificed in the name of progress. The Florida Department of Children and Families’ failed experiment with its child-welfare system had a hand in the deaths of these children.
These are their stories.
Gone but not forgotten
Eight-year-old Cherish Perrywinkle of Jacksonville had bright eyes and dark hair. She was killed July 22, 2013, after her mother, a longtime drug abuser, allowed a registered sex offender to take the child. Donald Smith, a pedophile who had served time for other crimes against children, promised the girl he’d buy her a new dress and treat her to McDonald’s. Instead, Smith, who had been arrested 19 times since 1977, strangled the child and dumped her off behind a church.
State officials had been involved with Perrywinkle’s family prior to the incidents leading to Cherish’s death in July. Her mother, Rayne, had been involved in a fight for the custody of the child in 2010. At the time, a court-appointed evaluator in Florida recommended that custody be granted to her father in California.
In fact, evaluator Robert Wood previously had noted, “I fear for the child’s future living with Ms. Perrywinkle. I do not make my recommendation lightly. I have given many, many hours of thought to the case.”
In April, 2-year-old Aliyah Marie Branum died in Citrus County, Florida. Her mother, 21-year-old Chelsea Huggett, who was eight months pregnant with her second child at the time, was arrested for murder.
Authorities were called to the child’s home, where they found the toddler “not breathing, conscious or alert.” After emergency responders couldn’t revive her, she was rushed to the hospital where she was pronounced dead. Her mother initially told authorities that she believed her boyfriend, who had sprayed bug spray on the infant, caused the child’s death. However, that story was inconsistent with the medical examiner’s findings, which ruled the child died as a result of excessive trauma.
Emergency room doctors who treated the child confirmed swelling and bruising on her face. They also noted that her left eye was swollen shut, and she had bleeding in her brain, as well as blood and yellow fluid draining from her ears and blood gushing from her nose
Medical reports revealed that the child also sustained a fractured skull and bruising to her pubic area.
Aliyah’s mother eventually admitted to shaking Aliyah, smashing her head into a wall and headbutting her because she was upset that the child was whining and trying to sit on her lap.
After the child’s murder, news reports revealed that the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) investigated Huggett twice for child abuse and neglect allegations prior to the incident by. Huggett stands accused of first-degree murder.
More and more terrible tales like these have emerged out of Florida in the past few months.
A 4-year-old boy, Antwan Hope, was killed by his mother in June. The mother, Destnee Simmons, was no stranger to DCF. They had stepped in a year ago when Simmons took the child to a motel and tried to smother him with a pillow.
In July, 3-year-old Dakota Stiles drowned in a filthy unkempt swimming pool outside his family’s home. Just weeks before the drowning, a DCF worker had been called to the home and had deemed the pool “exceptionally unsafe.” The DCF also noted that Dakota’s parents “appear to be paralyzed in parenting the children.”
Overarching problems in Florida’s child welfare system
The needless deaths of these children are part of an overarching problem revealed by the Miami Herald. In an investigation, the newspaper looked at “hundreds of pages of agency emails, incident reports and other documents obtained through Florida’s public records law,” which it says “show the number of children who died is nearly four times what had been acknowledged.”
The findings indicate that 20 children with child protection histories have died since April. This news elicited an abrupt resignation from DCF head David Wilkins.
The Miami Herald’s report found that June was the deadliest month for children like Dakota, Aliyah, Antwan and Cherish:
“[T]he deadly toll, from newborns to teenagers, was caused mostly by one or the other of the youngsters’ own parents — all of whom had come to DCF’s attention at least once before the tragedies occurred. They unfolded across the state, the cases bound only by the role the state did or did not play in the period leading up the child’s death.”
A 2009 New York Times article tells of Florida, which in the mid-2000s began to implement policies it believed would radically transform its child welfare system. This included a broad shift in spending. Rather than spending money on foster care, it provided in-home counseling, therapy for children and aid in the form of cash payments to families — all in an effort to help.
“Former Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican, led the transfer of many child services to nonprofit agencies. State officials remain responsible for investigating charges of abuse and neglect, and deciding when to ask a judge to remove a child from the home,” The New York Times reports.
What not to do
The program in Florida was revolutionary; Wilkins had worked to implement it. It was backed by a federal waiver that allowed the state to use foster care financing for prevention and mental health.
Rather than removing children from their families, the system developed in Florida sought to keep families together and provide parents with guidance through counseling and financial support while they worked to overcome problems. The new measures implemented by the system were to be corrective actions to help parents get their lives together, make changes and to flourish as a family.
However, as these tragic cases tell, this is not what has happened. Many news reports are now asking for a review of the child welfare system in the wake of this spike in child deaths, because “a rash of such episodes suggests systemic flaws in the state’s protective regime. The problems could stem from any of a number of factors, including cumbersome bureaucracy, excessive caseloads, overemphasis on keeping families together, a shortage of foster homes, ineptitude, lack of training and inadequate support services for families,” one report concludes.
“Whatever the causes, they must be addressed for the sake of vulnerable youngsters. Identifying the problems and initiating a more humane, effective child welfare system are obligations all Floridians share.”
Advocates hoped that the program would become standard nationwide. However, if Florida serves as any kind of example, it is of what not to do.
Now is the time not only for Floridians but others across the U.S. to cry out for justice and corrective action in the names of these innocent children who were pawns in a flawed system.
The most justice that could be afforded to these murdered children is for Florida to rethink its child welfare system and move in a different direction: one that protects children and keeps them safe from harm.